FCC's in-flight cellphone plan carries a lot of baggage

Political and business challenges loom over prospects for onboard cellular services

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

Anyone who dreads hearing one end of a loud phone call all the way from Anchorage to Miami, take heart: The plan to allow cellphones on planes could fail in more ways than an overbooked flight at a snowbound airport on Christmas Eve.

On Thursday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said it would consider a proposal to let airlines allow passengers to use cellular services while in flight. The services would use special onboard cells instead of regular towers on the ground and wouldn't be allowed below 10,000 feet. The FCC is scheduled to discuss the subject at its next public meeting on Dec. 12. If the agency adopts the rule, it will be up to airlines to install the onboard cells and decide whether passengers can talk, text or use cellular data.

Nearly everyone welcomed the Federal Aviation Administration's decision last month to let travelers keep electronic devices on from gate to gate, but allowing cellphone calls in flight is a whole other matter. A flight attendants' union came out strongly against the idea, polls indicate most consumers are worried about it, and a congressman who has fought in-flight calling in the past may revive a bill that would ban it.

"Just imagine the nightmare. You're sitting there in coach, three across, and you're in between two people who are yelling on their cellphones," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon. "You can't sleep, you can't work."

In 2008, DeFazio introduced the Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace (HANG UP) Act, which would have limited in-flight wireless services on airliners to data. The bill failed, but DeFazio said he probably will reintroduce it, if only to give opponents of the FCC's plan something to rally around.

The U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world, if being able to use a cellphone in the air is progress. Many major international airlines, including Air France, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic, already offer cellular service over countries where it's allowed. OnAir, a Swiss in-flight cell carrier, links onboard cellular servers to the ground via satellites. It boasts of roaming agreements with more than 350 mobile operators.

But even if the FCC lifts its rule, which was imposed in 1991 to prevent disruption of ground-based cellular networks, nothing will change in the U.S. unless airlines and service providers see a viable business in phone calls, analysts said.

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