On Thursday, the FCC took the first steps toward allowing cell phone calls on airline flights, voting 3-2 to issue a notice seeking comment on a number of changes to its rules, including the technical ban on in-flight cell phone use. Those who fear an explosion of use on planes would remove the relative quiet of flights (there are few who have not noticed the increased volume -- and we mean speaking volume -- of cell phone users), take heart. The decision is ultimately not the FCC's, but the DOT's, as Politico noted.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was quite clear about who would hold sway over any such ban. He said, in an announcement Thursday prior to the FCC's,
We believe USDOT’s role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers. USDOT will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls. As part of that process, USDOT will give stakeholders and the public significant opportunity to comment.
The FCC's look at the subject is, as the organization itself pointed out, only about the technical aspects of the cell phone use: It is both safe and feasible to allow cell phone use on airplanes.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said:
The FAA is the expert agency on determining which devices can be used on airplanes. The FCC is the expert agency when it comes to technical communications issues. We are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function. Technology has produced a new network reality recognized by governments and airlines around the world. Our responsibility is to recognize that new reality's impact on our old rules.
Speaking at a Congressional hearing, Wheeler added:
I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else.
However, he noted that if the FCC does not address the technical aspect of the issue, texting, surfing the web, emailing, and playing online games would continue to be banned during flights.
The FCC's proposal is strictly about public comment at this point, and is split into two parts.
The first part asks the public whether the existing prohibition on in-flight phone calls should continue, and whether or not it should be expanded to prohibit transmission on all mobile frequencies, which could likely include frequencies used for WiFi.
The second part examines allowing airlines to install new on-plane technology that would provide a mobile signal to passengers; the airline would be able to control the transmission of that signal.
The ability to use cell phones to make calls or operate sans WiFi in-flight is likely to be dependent on the latter proposal, unless VOIP is taken into account. Many consumers consider the cell phone to be usable everywhere. What many do not understand is why a cell phone is called a cell phone. It relies on "cells" that provide service in a limited area, from a cell phone tower.
Those towers are few and far between above 10,000 feet.