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Smartphones On A Plane: DoT Weighs In

FCC plans to review ban on airline voice calls, but Department of Transportation may enact its own ban, "for the sake of fliers' sanity."

Airlines may now allow you to use your mobile device during takeoff and landing, but you shouldn't be making voice calls from the air -- at least, not yet. The Federal Communications Commission has decided to officially review its ban of the practice, but the US Department of Transportation might put its own ban in place.

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The FCC voted 3-2 Thursday to push forward its proposal to overturn the ban on making cellular voice calls from planes. The ban was put into place in 1991 due to fears that the phones would wreak havoc on ground-based wireless networks. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said that the agency is responsible for the technical and safety implications, but not necessarily the societal impact lifting the ban might have.

"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function," said Wheeler.

[For another perspective, see Make The Skies Friendlier For Mobile Devices.]

Wheeler's opinion is shared by others in the government. Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said airlines, flight attendants, the flying public, and politicians, "are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight -- and I am concerned about this possibility as well." Foxx said the DoT may propose a ban on making phone calls on planes for the sake of fliers' sanity.

The flight attendant union was among the first to respond when the FCC initially said it would revisit its rules. It staunchly opposes the idea: "Passengers overwhelmingly reject cell phone use in the aircraft cabin. Flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment. Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe." The FCC has been inundated with pleas to leave the ban in place.

Wheeler and Foxx may be on the same page, but FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted in favor of revisiting the ban, has other concerns. "If we move beyond what we do here today and actually update our rules to allow voice calls on planes, we could see a future where our quiet time is monetized and seating in the silent section comes at a premium," said Rosenworcel. In other words, she's worried airlines might charge more for those passengers seeking quiet on the flight.

There are a lot of ifs and moving parts involved in making this all work. Nothing is going to be finalized any time soon.

First, the FCC actually has to lift the ban. The earliest it might do this is the first quarter of 2014. If the ban is lifted, it will be up to each individual airline to decide whether to offer the service. Airlines that choose to offer cellular voice calls will need to invest heavily in the technology to make it happen. Airplanes will need to be outfitted with their own cell towers and other telecommunications gear, which will require significant capital investment.

If you think calling from airplanes will be included in your monthly service plan, you're sadly mistaken -- airlines won't give the service away for free. High costs could be just enough of a deterrent to prevent the type of behavior everyone is loath to experience: gabby passengers who don't know when to be quiet.

The Department of Transportation may still act and save us all.

Eric Zeman is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies.

Consumerization 1.0 was "we don't need IT." Today we need IT to bridge the gap between consumer and business tech. Also in the Consumerization 2.0 issue of InformationWeek: Stop worrying about the role of the CIO. (Free registration required.)