FCC assailed for proposing in-flight cellphone use

The Federal Communications Commission is in full damage control mode after proposing Thursday that airline passengers should be able to use their cellphones in the air.

The announcement could prove to be a serious misstep for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who just took office earlier this month. 

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Lawmakers and the public heaped praise on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month when it lifted its ban on using electronic devices during take-offs and landings.

While many airline passengers like being able to listen to music or play games on their devices, the idea of being stuck on a plane for hours next to someone carrying on an obnoxious conversation has prompted a dramatic backlash.

One FCC commissioner received hundreds of outraged emails within hours of the announcement, an aide said.

“Playing ‘Words with Friends’ is different than passengers having lengthy, loud ‘conversations with friends’ while in the tight, inescapable confines of an airline passenger cabin," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said the issue will "surely be a spirited topic of discussion" at next month's oversight hearing of the FCC, which is expected to feature testimony from all five FCC commissioners.

"Like most Americans, when I heard the news that the FCC was considering allowing cell phone calls on commercial flights, I was concerned to say the least," Walden said. 

The union for flight attendants also bashed the proposal.

"Flight Attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment. Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe," the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement.

The aide to the FCC commissioner said the backlash appears to have taken the chairman's office by surprise.

Wheeler has only been on the job for a few weeks, and it seems unlikely that he was looking to pick a political fight over cellphone use on planes. 

"I am sure that everyone expected this to be a feel-good, let's make airline consumers happy, type of an inquiry," a former FCC official said. "I don't think anyone was prepared for it to become such a hot news story." 

The former official argued that the FCC should have put more emphasis in its initial announcement on mobile Internet access, instead of allowing the media and the public to focus on the possibility of phone calls.  

Late Friday, the chairman's office released a set of "frequently asked questions" aimed at clearing up confusion over the proposal.

The document emphasizes that whether to allow mid-air calls, texts or Internet access will be up to individual airlines. The FCC is only exploring whether its existing rule barring in-flight cell service over interference concerns is out of date.

“We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes," Wheeler said in a statement Friday. "I feel that way myself."

But he noted that technology is already in use in flights outside of the United States allowing passengers to use their phones without interfering with ground networks.

“We believe that airlines are best positioned to make such decisions," Wheeler said. "For this reason, our proposal does not impose any requirement that airlines should provide voice connectivity. We encourage airlines, pilots, flight attendants, and the public to engage in our upcoming rulemaking process.”

The FCC is slated to vote on a "notice of proposed rulemaking" on the issue at its next public meeting on Dec. 12. If a majority of the five-member commission approves the notice, the agency will begin accepting public comments.

"If I had to guess, [Wheeler] can't really pull [the proposal] back once it's circulated because it makes it look like he gets rolled over easily," the aide to a commissioner said. 

But not all FCC proposals become final rules. The commission could accept comments without ever making a final decision on the issue.

The FAA is expected to submit comments for the FCC proceeding and could issue its own regulations against phone calls if the FCC repeals its ban.

The FCC first considered lifting its ban on cellphone usage on flights in 2004, but received an onslaught of angry comments from the public. In 2007, the agency formally abandoned the proposal, saying there was "insufficient technical information” to conclude there wouldn't be interference problems.

But with the technology now in use overseas, that face-saving excuse appears to be off the table for Wheeler.