FCC Taking Sensible Path to Study Mobile Phone Use on Airliners

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-12-12 Print this article Print

What the FCC is proposing is that the airlines be permitted to allow the use of cellular devices if they provide equipment that's designed to manage those devices to ensure they only transmit at the lowest possible power. To accomplish this, the airlines' equipment would handle the cellular communications instead of the ground-based cellular network. And because the airline is doing the managing, it can decide whether to allow voice calls or not.

As Chairman Wheeler pointed out, it's the FCC's job to deal with the engineering and technology part of the equation. The Commission is not, as Wheeler said in his statement about the decision, the "Federal Courtesy Commission."

You'll notice that nowhere in this discussion does the issue of your loudmouthed seatmate arise. That's because as much as you may hate hearing people talk on the phone, that's not the FCC's problem. But you're welcome to express your concern to the FCC, as the agency staff explains in an FAQ that they provided with the announcement.

Of course, the FCC study and eventual rule making could be rendered moot since the U.S. Department of Transportation is saying that it may take a look at its own rules and ban cell phones even if the FCC allows them.

So what about the angst regarding cell phone use on airliners? Quite frankly, I think it's overblown, with lots of people crying about something they haven't experienced but which they imagine will be just awful. Virtually none of the people crying about this has every actually experienced a call on an airliner, even though it's been going on for a while in Europe and Asia.

OK. So maybe these people don't have time to go have this experience. After all, they're too busy expressing their worries to actually find out whether they're well-founded. But it's easy to find out closer to home. Just get on the train. Amtrak has always allowed cell phone calls on trains, and in my experience traveling on airliners in Europe and on Amtrak in the U.S., it's really not a big deal.

It costs so much to make a call on an airliner that few people do. On the train, with its wider, more comfortable seats and vastly quieter environment, most people talk quietly and don't yell at their phones.

But perhaps the rail experience can help improve the in-flight cell phone experience as well. For years, Amtrak has had a "Quiet Car" where you're not allowed to use your phone. You're also not allowed to play loud music, talk loudly or otherwise make noise. Perhaps Amtrak can teach the airlines a thing or two about the quiet enjoyment of travel. Maybe the airlines can introduce a Quiet Section with similar rules.



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