Fact and fiction in the in-flight phone debate

Two weeks ago, the FCC announced that it plans to consider revisions to its rules on mobile wireless services onboard aircraft.  As the leading trade association representing the manufacturers and suppliers of information and communications technology (ICT), TIA strongly supports the FCC’s efforts to overhaul these outdated regulations.  We also strongly believe that much of the criticism of the FCC’s announcement has been based on inaccurate information.  So let’s get the facts straight.

It is, of course, understandable that people would be concerned about the potential effects of in-flight cell phone use on passengers’ flight experience.  But to be clear: contrary to some reports, the FCC will not, and cannot, require that voice calls be allowed on flights. 

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If the FCC moves forward with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, it will merely open a comment period in which all stakeholders – including the ICT industry, airlines, passengers, and the flying public – can provide comments on its proposals.  Even if the FCC ultimately votes to revise its regulations, any final decisions about what types of cellular uses to allow will be market-based and made by individual airlines, in consultation with their customers.  Already, Delta Air Lines has suggested that it does not plan to allow voice calls on its flights, even if the FCC rules allow for such calls.

It’s also important to recognize that all forms of cellular services, including voice calls, have been successfully deployed by airlines operating in most of the world outside the United States.  Here are the facts, based on real-world experience over the past five years:

  • 80 to 90 percent of cellular use on planes involves texting or data. 
  • Flights have not become a place where phone calls are routine and widespread.
  • Calls typically last one to two minutes in duration.
  • Typically, one to two calls at most are being made simultaneously by passengers on the aircraft at any point during a flight.  Many of these “voice” calls involve checking voicemail, with no speaking by the passenger at all. 

Critics should also understand that the FCC has already approved rules that allow in-flight voice and data services, including broadband services, using dedicated air-to-ground frequencies.  This means that, on a practical note, it is already legal in the United States to hold a “voice” call with permitted electronic devices such as laptops over an airplane’s WiFi signal using Skype, Google Voice or other IP-based services.

The reality is, a combination of effective cabin procedures and social “self-regulation” has been very effective in preserving a quiet flight experience.  There have been no reported instances of “air rage” tied to cellular use, even as airlines must routinely re-seat or remove passengers who engage in other, truly disruptive behaviors.  And while the FCC is only responsible for regulating the technical issues of cellular operation on aircraft, it’s worth noting that there have been no reported effects on flight safety, as confirmed by a recent statutorily-required FAA study. Separately the FAA already issues airworthiness certificates allowing for installation of the mobile infrastructure on aircraft that have been ordered for use by foreign airlines.

The FCC is obligated to update or remove current regulations that are no longer justified by advances in technology.  In any context, reviewing in-flight cellular use is a healthy exercise and TIA congratulates the FCC for undertaking a re-examination of regulations in this space.  The rules in question were adopted many years ago to guard against possible signal interference issues, something that is no longer a concern.  If technology doesn’t justify the ban on cellular services – whether data, text, or voice – it is the role of the FCC to change the rules and ensure that airlines, have the most up-to-date and accurate information to make their own educated, market-based decisions in response to the requirements of their customers.

In the end, the FCC’s potential rule change would increase connectivity for consumers and open a new ecosystem for in-flight services of all kinds.  The ICT industry and entrepreneurs will innovate with as-yet-unknown new technologies, ultimately leading to new devices, services, and applications that will greatly benefit the flying public and encourage economic growth. TIA looks forward to working with the FCC as it seeks to remove outdated regulatory barriers for access to innovative devices and services.

Seiffert is president of the Telecommunications Industry Association.