December 13, 2013, 4:59 PM — The latest twist in the debate over in-flight calling might allow users of some Internet-based services to do voice and video chats immediately on some airliners.
JetBlue has launched in-flight Wi-Fi designed to carry streaming video, which is now live on three aircraft, the airline announced Thursday. JetBlue is blocking some ports used by Internet voice and video chat services, but it isn't stopping passengers from using voice.
"We're not currently policing it," spokesman Morgan Johnston said. "If we hear from our customers that there's an overwhelming desire to police it, we'll certainly take that into consideration."
JetBlue will handle complaints about individual passengers' voice calls on a case by case basis as part of maintaining harmony in the cabin, Johnston said.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to seek comments on a plan to allow cellular service on planes through small onboard base stations. That plan wouldn't address whether voice calls would be allowed. The same day, the Department of Transportation said it would consider banning onboard voice calls specifically. Members of Congress are also exploring possible legislation against in-flight calls.
The FCC's proposal is aimed specifically at a 22-year-old regulation designed to protect the ground-based cellular network from interference. Many airlines outside the U.S. already allow cellular use over onboard "picocells," and they say those services are used mostly for text and data.
Even as U.S. airlines have installed onboard Wi-Fi networks that might be able to carry VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype, they have retained their own prohibitions on voice calls in flight.
JetBlue, which claims its Fly-Fi Wi-Fi service is the first that could really handle VoIP, plans to tackle the voice controversy mainly through technical means unless its passengers demand more.
Different online services use different virtual ports to reach the Internet, and service providers can block ports to keep users from accessing certain types of services. But there is some overlap in uses between port numbers, so port-blocking may not prevent all voice.
"We're doing what we can to discourage it," Johnston said. "We are blocking some VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) ports because we recognize that those are used strictly for VoIP, and there are some streaming ports specifically for streaming video that will remain open."