DOT may preserve ban on in-flight calls

 

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement Thursday that he will consider stepping in to preserve the ban on cellphone calls on airplanes.

"USDOT will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls," Foxx said.

The Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency, will consider advancing a proposal Thursday to lift its ban on in-flight cellphone use. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said his agency's ban, which is based on interference concerns, is outdated.

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Many airlines in other countries already use technologies to allow passengers to text, use data services and place calls without interfering with ground networks.

But the FCC has faced a major backlash since it announced the proposal last month. Although many airline passengers like the idea of texting and browsing the Web on their phones, they have expressed dismay at being forced to listen to obnoxious phone conversations in a tight space.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill Thursday to ban in-flight calls, and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has introduced similar legislation in the House.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight – and I am concerned about this possibility as well," Foxx said.

"As the FCC has said before, their sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight. We believe USDOT’s role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers."

He said the department will give all stakeholders and the public "significant opportunity" to comment on the issue.

During a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing Thursday, Wheeler said he discussed the possible agency moves with Foxx earlier in the day.

"I have spoken to Transportation Secretary Foxx this morning, and he has told me that yes, the FCC is the technical agency and that the Department of Transportation is the aviation agency and that they will be moving on a rule to address voice calls on airplanes," Wheeler said.

The FCC chairman said he understands the concerns about calls on planes, but his agency's job is only to look at the technical interference issues.

"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," Wheeler said. "But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission."

The FCC will vote on a "notice of proposed rule-making" at its meeting on Thursday, which will allow the commission to begin accepting comments on its proposal.

If the FCC ultimately lifts its ban on all in-flight cellphone connectivity, and the FAA enacts new rules against voice calls, passengers would be able to text and browse the Web while still being barred from making calls.

--This report was updated at 1:16 p.m.

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