FCC Considers Allowing Phone Calls on Planes

Electronic devices are permitted, but allowing phone calls draws ire.

A passenger checks her cell phone before a flight, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, in Boston.

The FCC should approve the concept of inflight wireless service in American aircraft.

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Using a laptop on a plane can be convenient, but can you imagine passengers next to you during a flight making phone calls? During its meeting on Dec. 12 the Federal Communications Commission will consider whether to allow mobile phone calls during flights, according to newly confirmed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The agency could take months to consider whether to take that step. The FCC's proposal comes shortly after the Federal Aviation Administration announced in October that airlines will soon allow passengers to use electronic devices including tablets, laptops, e-readers and cell phones in "airplane mode," which means Wi-Fi must be turned off. Device use during takeoff and landings is still prohibited. Each airline has discretion on whether to allow device use, so the same provision could be used if phone calls were allowed.

[READ: AMR, US Airways Reach Settlement with Justice Department on Merger]

"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," Wheeler said in an announcement on Thursday. "I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

Questions the FCC will consider include whether mobile phone signals would interfere with airplane equipment, whether the planes would need to be outfitted with antennas to allow stable phone signals, and perhaps most importantly whether passengers and flight staff want to have this permission enacted.

"Passengers overwhelmingly reject cellphone use in the aircraft cabin. The FCC should not proceed with this proposal," the Association of Flight Attendants said in a statement. "In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating negative effects on aviation safety and security."

[READ: FAA Allows Use of Electronic Devices During All Phases of Flight]

Allowing phone calls on planes would have a negative effect on the in-flight experience, according to 64 percent of passengers who responded to a survey conducted in 2012 by Delta Air Lines.

Giving consumers access to mobile broadband or even Internet service on planes would benefit the tech and telecom industries, according to a statement from Telecommunications Industry Association President Grant Seiffert.

"Already, substantial [information and communications technology] manufacturer and vendor interest exists in this space, and our members are investing in related opportunities for growth internationally," said Seiffert, whose industry group represents technology manufacturers.

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