FCC pumps brakes on in-flight phone rule

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is giving the public extra time to comment on its plans to let airlines allow cellphone use onboard.

In an upcoming notice set to be published on Monday, the commission pushed back the deadline for reply comments on the proposal, which allow people to comment on each others’ comments, to May 16. The reply comment period for the January draft rule was originally scheduled to close on Monday, March 17.

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“We conclude that a short extension of time is warranted to enable interested parties sufficient opportunity to review and respond to the complex technical issues raised by” the proposal, the commission said.

The FCC’s effort to lift the ban on in-flight cellphones, first announced last year, prompted outrage from people fearing an obnoxious seatmate on a transcontinental flight. Commissioners received hundreds of outraged emails within hours of the announcement, and the formal rule proposal has received more than 1,300 comments.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has defended the action. Manners, he said, are not the purview of the FCC.

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

The Transportation Department has stepped in to work towards maintaining the ban on in-flight cellphone calls, as a matter of public fairness, rather than the FCC’s focus on technical interference.

In Monday’s Federal Register notice, the FCC noted that the wireless trade group CTIA along with AeroMobile, an in-flight telecommunications company, and Panasonic had asked for an extension in February to let companies “consult with each other on technical issues.”