FCC Asks FAA To Relax Gadget Restrictions

FCC chairman asks aviation regulators to give airline passengers greater freedom to use electronic devices during flights.
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Turning off smartphones and tablets during taxi and takeoff may become a thing of the past.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration's acting head Michael Huerta requesting that it "enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices" on airplanes.

The request, unearthed by The Hill, comes while the FAA is reviewing these policies. The evaluation began earlier this year.

"With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest," said transportation secretary Roy LaHood in August. "Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight."

[ Android's market dominance is increasing. See Android Jelly Bean More Than Doubles Market Presence. ]

Currently, the FAA requires that all electronic devices be powered down while planes are on the ground preparing for takeoff. Only after the aircraft reaches an altitude of 10,000 feet are passengers allowed to turn them back on. Cell phone radios, however, must still remain off for the duration of any flight. Some airlines provide Wi-Fi-based Internet service to laptops and tablets for an extra fee.

Though the FAA is reviewing these policies, it has no plans to allow voice calls on airplanes -- that is not on the table. The FCC hopes the FAA will relax its policies regarding other use of mobile devices.

"This review comes at a time of tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives," wrote Genachowski. "They empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness."

It's not clear what, if any, impact the FCC's request will have. The FAA's review is really just getting underway. It planned to form a study group sometime during the fall and then spend six months assessing the effect of mobile device use on the safe operation of aircraft. Further, when the FAA first announced the review, it said that it might not change its policies once the review is complete. Instead, the FAA may leave it up to individual airlines to set their own policies based on the information gathered at the end of the review.

It doesn't hurt, however, that the FCC is pushing for greater use of electronics on planes.

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