FCC moves toward in-flight mobile use, but DOT may ban voice calls

The FCC votes to seek comment on a proposal to allow airlines to allow some mobile device use

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to move forward with a plan to allow airlines to permit passengers to use mobile phones during flights, but another agency may protect travelers from hearing the loud phone conversations of their seatmates.

While the FCC approved a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, seeking comment to allow airline passengers to use devices for texting, emailing and surfing the Web, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it will initiate a proceeding to ban in-flight voice calls.

"Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight -- and I am concerned about this possibility as well," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in statement.

The DOT will look at whether in-flight voice calls are "fair to consumers," Foxx said.

The FCC's role in the process is to determine whether concerns about mobile device interference with existing mobile networks are made obsolete with new technologies, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during a commission meeting.

Wheeler noted the attendance at the meeting of several people representing flight attendants. "Nothing will be different on your flight tomorrow," he said. "We're seeking comments on a proposal."

The proposal would not open up all flights to loud and annoying phone conversations, Wheeler said. Airlines would have control over what mobile services they allow, subject to a DOT ban on voice calls, and airlines could allow some mobile use only if they install new equipment to eliminate interference, he said.

"Let me say up front that, I get it," Wheeler said. "I don't want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else."

While the FCC approved Wheeler's request to seek comments on the proposal, commissioners voiced reservations about allowing all types of mobile use on flights.

The proposal could lead to an increase in "air rage incidents," said Commissioner Ajit Pai, who voted against the NPRM.

Commissioners have received many "quite colorful" public comments opposing the plan to allow mobile phone use on airplanes since Wheeler announced he would make the proposal, Pai said.

The FCC has prohibited in-flight mobile phone use since 1991, due to concerns about interference to mobile networks on the ground. Since then, new technology has allowed for specialized onboard systems that can avoid interference, according to the FCC.

Some airlines in Asia and Europe have allowed mobile access during the past five years.

Under the FCC proposal, airlines could decide whether to allow mobile services on flights. If an airline chooses to install new onboard equipment, passengers could use their mobile devices' data capabilities in addition to the current choice of Wi-Fi access on some flights. Airlines would control what types of mobile services to permit onboard, such as Web surfing, emailing and texting.

The proposal would limit mobile use to aircraft higher than 10,000 feet.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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