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Airlines, Not FCC, Should Decide Whether to Permit In-Flight Cellphone Use | Commentary

The Federal Communications Commission is looking into whether U.S. airlines should allow their customers to use cellphones on flights for email, texting and voice while above 10,000 feet. The mention of this technical possibility has prompted visceral statements from members of Congress about the threat of being trapped on a plane next to obnoxious passengers yapping away for hours.

But before Congress rushes ahead and short-circuits the technical process by banning airline and passenger choice regarding cellphone use, the members of the House and Senate worried about a change should first consider a couple facts: First, cellular service has been available in non-U.S. markets for more than five years without controversy. Second, if the FCC doesn’t allow airlines the choice to provide this capability, or if Congress votes to universally ban it, U.S. airlines will be at a disadvantage compared to international ones that do.

A Federal Aviation Administration survey of foreign civil air authorities showed no passenger “air rage” or “flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations” among the airlines it questioned. The survey showed that passengers used their cellphones for data — texting and emailing — far more than for voice calls, and the calls only lasted about two minutes.

The FAA’s information is supported by the experience of our company, AeroMobile. We provide inflight wireless connectivity outside the United States. We’ve found that more than 80 percent of passenger cellphone users employ only data and/or texting. And when an airline allows for voice calls, the number of calls per flight is less than six, and the average length of a call is short.

The United States has the largest and most robust aviation market in the world, and for too long it has been excluded from the benefits of in-flight mobile connectivity. Passengers expect to remain connected in the same ways they do on the ground and access to mobile applications is an essential aspect of staying connected.

There is no technical reason to think that in-flight mobile connectivity could not be possible in the United States. Airborne access systems operate virtually everywhere else in the world pursuant to well-settled technical and operational rules that ensure compatibility with aircraft operations and terrestrial networks on the ground. The same types of technical and operational approaches will ensure successful operation of airborne access systems in the United States.

The FCC has otherwise been at the forefront of other in-flight connectivity developments, from developing terrestrial air-ground service rules for the U.S. market to licensing global, satellite-based in-flight connectivity systems. However, U.S. rules have lagged with respect to in-flight mobile connectivity.

If the FCC finds that in-flight cell use does not interfere with terrestrial networks, some airlines may decide to ban voice calls — but that would be an individual airline policy decision, not a technical one. If having that capability is important to a customer, he or she will choose an airline that provides it.

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