FCC Starts Process to Allow In-Flight Phone Calls

Department of Transportation, FCC clash on in-flight call ban.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pulled an internal proposal made by his predecessor that would have loosened restrictions on how many media properties a company may own.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pulled an internal proposal made by his predecessor that would have loosened restrictions on how many media properties a company may own.

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The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 this week in favor of an initial proposal to allow cellphone calls during flights, clashing with criticism of the plan from politicos in Congress and the Department of Transportation.

The proposal cleared its first regulatory hurdle when the Democratic FCC commissioners, led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, voted Thursday in favor of the initial rulemaking, which the commission will revisit sometime after a public comment period ends in early 2014.

[VOTE: Should In-Flight Cell Phone Use Be Allowed?]

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said during Thursday's commission meeting that "when traveling by rail I strive to be among the first in line for the quiet car." But she voted for the proposal, explaining that allowing wireless companies to compete with in-flight Wi-Fi services could lead to lower prices and better-quality data options for fliers.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted for the measure with her fellow Democrats but added, "I do not like this proceeding."

"I believe as public servants we have a duty to look beyond these four walls and ask ourselves if our actions do, in fact, serve the public," Rosenworcel said. "When it comes to authorizing voice calls on planes, I think the answer is a resounding 'no.'"

Airline customers, flight attendants and members of Congress are each questioning whether allowing cellphone calls during flights is a good idea, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement on Thursday, adding that the U.S. Department of Transportation will begin a process examining whether to keep the ban on in-flight calls.

"As the FCC has said before, their sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight," Foxx said. "We believe USDOT's role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers."

A Quinnipiac University poll on Wednesday showed 59 percent of people are opposed to the idea of phone conversations during flight. Fifty-two percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 also opposed the idea, despite being part of a generation raised on smartphones.

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

With that in mind, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced a bill on Monday that would ban in-flight phone calls.

"Airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined," Shuster said Monday.

The proposed regulations the FCC will consider only permit calls on aircraft traveling higher than 10,000 feet. The proposal also specifies that the aircraft must be outfitted with equipment certified by the Federal Aviation Administration that ensures a cellular signal will not interfere with a network signal.

The FAA announced in October that airlines will allow passengers to use electronic devices including tablets, laptops, e-readers and cellphones 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 the use of devices, and the same provision would apply if phone calls were permitted by regulators.

Airlines based in the European Union and the U.K. have allowed mobile device use and phone calls during the past five years, so allowing cellphone use on U.S. planes may not become a "horror story," according to an opinion article written for U.S. News & World Report by Darryl Jenkins, founder of the George Washington University Aviation Institute.

 

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