FCC chief takes public lashing on in-flight calls

New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has taken a beating for his proposal to allow cellphone calls on airplanes.

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The backlash to the plan appears to have caught Wheeler by surprise, and he is struggling to put the controversy behind him so that he can move on to the more significant parts on his agenda. 

Lawmakers, passengers and the union for flight attendants have all slammed Wheeler's proposal, saying people shouldn't be forced to listen to obnoxious phone conversations in the notoriously cramped confines of commercial jets.

Both Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have introduced bills to keep the ban on in-flight cellphone use in place, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has vowed an all-out lobbying campaign to kill the FCC move.

Wheeler says he doesn't want to be listening to calls in the air more than anyone else, but argues the FCC's ban, which is based on interference concerns, is outdated and cannot stand.

He notes that other countries have already deployed technology on flights that allows passengers to text, browse the Web and place calls without causing interference problems.

"If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid. It’s that simple," Wheeler said Thursday before the FCC voted 3-2 to begin accepting public comments on the proposal.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx threw Wheeler a lifeline this week, announcing that the Transportation Department will consider stepping in to prohibit in-flight calls.

A senior FCC official said the move was the Transportation Department's idea, and that Wheeler and Foxx discussed it for the first time on Thursday, just hours before the commission’s vote.

The move could help quell the public outrage by ensuring that a federal ban on in-flight cellphone calls stays in place.

Wheeler said he was "pleased" with Foxx's announcement.

Still, the FCC chairman might not be able to push his proposal through his own commission.

Although Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel backed the step Thursday to seek public input, she indicated she would oppose any final action to allow in-flight calls.

"I believe as public servants we have a duty to look beyond these four walls and ask ourselves if our actions do in fact serve the public. When it comes to authorizing voice calls on planes, I think the answer is a resounding no," she said at the commission meeting. "We are not just technicians."

She said that as a "regular resident of the last row and middle seat," she understands the frustrations of air travel.

"This Commission does not need to add to that burden. I, for one, will not," she said.

With two Republican commissioners already opposed, Wheeler would need Rosenworcel's support to approve a final order lifting the ban.

The dynamic could change if the Transportation Department bans in-flight calls. A firm ban could persuade the other FCC commissioners to support Wheeler's proposal, which would still allow passengers to text and access the Internet through their mobile carriers.

A former FCC official said that Wheeler stumbled badly by pushing the proposal in his first weeks on the job.

"He's burned an incredible amount of political capital on this, and he doesn't even have the votes," the former official said.

But the current senior FCC official dismissed arguments that the controversy threatens to undermine the chairman’s agenda.

"I don't think he stumbled at all. He hit the ground running and got four important things done [on Thursday]," the official said, pointing to new rules aimed at improving 911 service, a voluntary agreement with industry on cellphone unlocking, a step towards transitioning network technology and the in-flight cellphone proposal.

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