Make The Skies Friendlier For Mobile Devices - InformationWeek

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Mobile // Mobile Devices
12:20 PM
Roslyn Layton
Roslyn Layton

Make The Skies Friendlier For Mobile Devices

It's time to let passengers use their mobile phones as they and the airlines see fit. The FCC is on board.

More than 20 million people take a cruise annually. Many bring mobile phones to talk, text, email, and browse the web. The technology that enables mobile connectivity, whether in the skies or on the high seas, is essentially the same. An onboard mobile network links to the terrestrial mobile network via satellite, and customers access mobile services with a roaming plan from their mobile provider.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would like consumers to enjoy the same convenience in the air as they do on the water.

Not to be confused with the recent Federal Aviation Administration ruling deciding that portable electronic devices no longer have to be powered down during landing and takeoff and can be used in all phases of flight (except to make calls), the FCC's proposal on the docket for Thursday concerns mobile operations above 10,000 feet and whether they impact terrestrial networks.

As FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has stated, there is no technical issue that interferes with the safety of fliers, and as he said today, "When the rationale for a rule doesn't exist, the rule shouldn't exist."

[Secure the data, not the mobile device. Read more at Keep Data Off Mobile Devices & Away From Adversaries.]

The FCC has suggested that, once technical and safety requirements are met, airlines (in consultation with passengers) are better equipped to make decisions on how, where, and when to use mobile services, including for making calls. A new rule would allow airlines to make mobile services available should their customers desire it. The use of phones during takeoff and landing would still be prohibited. It's worth noting that a final decision on an official FCC ruling won't come until next year.

The no in-flight mobile rule has been in effect for more than two decades. It's an antique in the age of smartphones. Now with definitive information that there are no safety concerns, along with improved technology that makes in-flight mobile phone service feasible, the FCC is moving toward retiring an obsolete statute. When government agencies and politicians are loath to retire old rules, this effort to remove rules that are no longer relevant is a testament to the FCC's integrity.

The agency has made it clear that it will determine only the technical, not behavioral, issues of in-flight mobile operations. Many passengers welcome the opportunity to send texts and browse the web while in flight, but some policy makers worry that rude passengers will speak too loudly or frequently. To calm some of these fears, let's consider the experience of foreign countries and airlines that already offer in-flight voice calls.

An FAA questionnaire of non-US aviation authorities found not only no documented occurrences of mobile phones affecting flight safety, but also no negative comments about in-flight mobile service, incidents of "air rage", or flight attendant interference. If anything, complaints were about a mobile phone not working or a call being interrupted in flight.

The 11-country survey, including Brazil, UK, Australia and France, found that fewer than 2% of customers used voice services in flight, phone calls were less than two minutes long, and texting exceeded voice by a factor of 10. The fact that in-flight roaming technology is expensive curbs the frequency and duration of passenger phone calls.

Should the ban be lifted, there would be many possibilities for US airlines. The status quo would still be in effect unless airlines took action to change it. The upside for airlines is that the decision of whether to offer mobile service would be based upon what consumers want, not what a regulator decides. Just as cruise ships compete with a variety of plans and services, including mobile connectivity, airlines should have those options. Presently, foreign airlines have a head start on offering these benefits to customers.

Airlines are no stranger to managing disparate customer needs. Consider the growing industry of discount air travel with a la carte pricing. If an airline can deploy a variety of pricing options to satisfy a range of customers, then it can balance the needs of callers and noncallers. This ruling would give consumers another competitive dimension when evaluating a mobile provider. It would also be a valuable addition for frequent business flyers.

Not only do virtually all Americans have mobile phones, but more than half have smartphones. Society is integrating with mobile technology, and a big part of this integration is the debate over mobile phone etiquette. There are rules about the use of mobile phones in restaurants, trains, fitness centers, and other locations. Some oppose lifting the in-flight ban because the airplane seems like the last refuge from work and the stresses of life. If it is the case that life is out of balance, then something needs to be done, but it's not the role of the FCC to be arbiter of work-life balance.

With mobile technology, we can communicate anytime and everywhere on the Earth, whether on cruise ships, cars, trains, subways, or buses. To say that mobile phones can't be used fully on planes is simply inconsistent, and the time has come to overturn this antiquated rule.

Roslyn Layton is a PhD fellow in Internet economics at the Center for Communication, Media, and Information Technologies at Aalborg University in Denmark and vice president of Strand Consult, a mobile industry consultancy.

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User Rank: Author
12/16/2013 | 12:05:53 PM
Pull over
Your point is well taken, although I think getting the FCC to regulate text transmission on the ground is akin to putting the Genie back in the bottle.
User Rank: Author
12/12/2013 | 5:47:39 PM
From the FCC Chairman
Interesting to read Chairman Wheeler's own take on expanding access to wireless services on board aircraft.  Here's what he said today on the matter:

DECEMBER 12, 2013
            Today's proposal to remove outdated rules and expand access to mobile wireless services during air travel is pro-free market, pro-competition, pro-consumer, pro-technology, and de-regulatory. It has also garnered a great deal of attention and been widely misunderstood.

            Let me say up front that, I get it. I don't want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. So then why are we still moving forward with this item?

            To answer that question, let's look at what this proposal does and does NOT do.

First off, today's action represents the beginning of a process to collect information and consumer input. As always, we will review input from the public before taking any final action.           

Next, the status quo requirement that cellphones may not be used in-flight would be retained. The prohibition, in fact, would be explicitly expanded. The current rule applies only to phones operating on the 800MHz frequency band and ignores all other cellular frequencies. This regulatory inconsistency is poor policy.

            The rule change on which we seek comment would extend that prohibition to all frequency bands unless the aircraft is outfitted with on-board equipment that manages a cellular signal before it has the potential to interfere with terrestrial networks. Absent such equipment, the ban would remain in effect.

            However, if an airline installs new on-board equipment, the FCC's ban is no longer necessary.  Our engineering belief (on which comment is sought) is that it is technically safe to use the new onboard equipment to prevent interference with terrestrial networks. The proposal would not require airlines to either install such equipment, or to offer mobile wireless services aboard their aircraft.  Airlines would be free, within the confines of the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (DoT), to make their own decisions.  We simply propose that because new technology makes the old rule obsolete the FCC should get government out from between airlines and their passengers.  Where there is not a need for regulation, the free market works best to determine the appropriate outcome.

            So how might this play out for consumers? If an airline decides to install an on-board access system consumers would be permitted to use their existing mobile devices and not be limited to signing up for WiFi. And the airline would be in total control of what types of mobile services to permit. A mobile device can send texts and emails, and can surf the Web. A mobile device can also make a voice call. The technology allows for the differentiation among such services. Thus, airlines would be free to make their own determination whether to program the new equipment to block voice calls while permitting texting, email and Web surfing, consistent with the rules of the authorities on aviation safety and consumer issues: the FAA and the DoT. I am pleased that the DoT today announced that will begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning in-flight calls.

            Today's proposal is intended to solicit input. It is not a final decision. We look forward to the technology and consumer input this proposal will generate. We invite all interested parties to participate and file comments.

            Today's vote is about more than just how you can use your mobile phone on airplanes; it's about how this agency should do its job.       

The FCC is the expert agency on communications.  It is charged with making technology-based decisions.

For over 20 years, an FCC rule from the analog era of cell phones has banned the use of mobile devices on airplanes because of the potential to interfere with terrestrial networks below.  But on-board mobile access technology has been operational internationally with great success for the last five years. In accord with that experience, and other data, the Commission's engineers believe that there are no technical reasons to prohibit such technology to operate in the United States. If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid.  It's that simple.

The FCC is sometimes criticized for relying on outdated rules that do not reflect current technologies or markets.  This is a textbook opportunity to do something about eliminating an unnecessary regulation of the FCC and letting the marketplace function. If we are serious about eliminating outdated regulations that serve no purpose, the decision is clear.  A vote not to proceed on seeking comments on this issue is a vote against regulatory reform.

Finally, a word on process. Going back to Commissioner McDowell, there have been calls for increased transparency in the matter in which the FCC presents issues to the public, notably that NPRMs should include proposed rules. I support the calls for this reform. Such a rebuttable presumption allows respondents to target their comments.  Failure to include a rebuttable presumption from being the focus of debate would not in the spirit of procedural improvement, and that is why I am pleased this Notice adopts such an approach.

We need to update this rule for the benefit of consumers and to reflect accurately changing technical realities.  I urge support for an effort to start this process.

User Rank: Author
12/12/2013 | 4:58:23 PM
Your call
I think Roslyn makes an important distinction.  While I'm in the camp with what seems like the rest of the world that getting stuck next to some loudmouth passenger with a phone is a horrifying thought, I agree that the FCC should be in the business of making technical, not behavioral, decisions when it comes to technology.

Let the airlines and the public work out how to resolve this matter, but let the FCC retire once and for all this antiquated rule. 

Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
12/12/2013 | 3:11:17 PM
Re: Can you hear me now?
I can't imagine sitting next to someone on a long flight who's constantly on the phone. That alone would be enough for me to switch to an airline that doesn't allow it, for the sake of sanity.
User Rank: Author
12/12/2013 | 1:30:52 PM
Can you hear me now?
I wonder if airlines will make us pay extra for the quiet zone or the phone call zone.
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