On December 12, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held an Open Meeting in which it discussed and adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), available here, aimed at removing the restrictions on airborne use of mobile devices in the 800 MHz cellular and Specialized Mobile Radio bands and expanding access to mobile communications services in all wireless bands.
The original restrictions on airborne use of mobile devices were intended to protect wireless networks on the ground (not avionics equipment, as many believe) from interference. But according to the NRPM, the technology has advanced, enabling use of mobile devices in flight without causing harmful interference – so long as an airplane has the proper onboard equipment to manage the cellular connections. The proposed rule would remove existing regulatory barriers on in-flight communications, voice calls, sending or reading email, and accessing the Internet.
The Commission adopted the NPRM by vote of 3-2. Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly dissented, stating that the proposal’s licensing framework is inadvisable, because it would allow airlines to use the same frequencies currently licensed on an exclusive basis to wireless carriers, and noting that the proposed rules could require airlines to become Commercial Mobile Radio Services carriers. They also raised concerns about flight safety, and specifically national security and the possibility of inciting “air rage.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, while voting to adopt the NPRM, echoed Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly, stating that she would not support permitting voice calls on planes, as she believes it would not serve the public interest.
In contrast, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Chairman Tom Wheeler stressed that the proposal is aimed at eliminating a regulation that has outlived its purpose. Commissioner Clyburn stated that the new rules would promote competition for mobile broadband services on planes, thus benefiting consumers by giving them more than one option for data services. Similarly, Chairman Wheeler noted that the proposal is necessary not only for voice calls, but also for in-flight email and Internet use. Both firmly stated that the FCC should not refrain from removing outdated technical rules due to concerns over etiquette or in-flight behavior, concerns which, Chairman Wheeler noted, are more appropriately directed at other agencies.
In that regard, the US Department of Transportation has announced that it will consider banning voice calls on airplanes. In addition, Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) has introduced S. 1811, the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act, to prohibit voice communications during commercial flights. Representative Bill Shuster (R–PA) has introduced H.R. 3676, a similar bill, in the House.
The comment cycle for this NPRM will be established once it is published in the Federal Register. Comments will be due 30 days from publication, and Reply Comments 60 days from publication.