FCC Taking Sensible Path to Study Mobile Phone Use on Airliners

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-12-12

FCC Taking Sensible Path to Study Mobile Phone Use on Airliners

Before you start making voodoo dolls in the likeness of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler, take a minute to find out what the FCC actually did in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding the use of devices using cellular technology on airliners.

First and perhaps most important, it expanded the existing ban on wireless devices on airplanes. Yes, that's right, expanded. Previously, the FCC's ban only applied to devices operating in the 800MHz cell phone spectrum, a limitation left over from the dark old days of analog phones.

The new rule expands that limitation to all mobile devices using cellular technology, regardless of frequency. But it also did something that has people freaking out. It allows airlines, under certain circumstances and with significant limitations, to provide special equipment that will allow the use of mobile devices using cellular technology. Those devices can include mobile phones as well as tablets and computers that use cellular technology.

What the new NPRM does not do is require the airlines to do anything to allow cell phones. Instead, it opens up a period of investigation along with a public comment period that will eventually lead to revised FCC regulations on the topic. The FCC is simply changing its rules to keep up with the technology in the 21st century.

The original reason for the cell phone ban on aircraft has nothing to do with your seatmate noisily blabbing away on a mobile phone. It has to do with preventing interference with the electronic equipment on the airplane and preventing interference with terrestrial wireless networks. While this ban originated in the days of analog phones, it remains to this day because cell networks aren't designed to work with airplanes.

The reason that airborne cellular devices cause problems with terrestrial networks is because the cell systems' computers will sense a weak signal coming into many towers at the same time. This signal will be traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, and will be lighting up a swath of towers as it does. But the cellular radios in those towers are outfitted with antennas that basically point at the ground. The result is that the networks' computers won't know which tower is closest, and as a result it will order the device on the airplane to boost its transmitting power.

The higher transmitting power raises the likelihood that cellular devices on airplanes will interfere with the electronic equipment providing navigation and communications for the aircraft. This is not a good thing.

FCC Taking Sensible Path to Study Mobile Phone Use on Airliners

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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