Cell Phones On A Plane Do Not Deserve The Same Freak Out As Snakes On A Plane

So it appears people like the idea of using their tablets on planes, but not using cell phones on planes.Or, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, a lot of people do not want mother——ing cellphones on these mother—–ing planes.


Whatever the merits of this position, however, we should not ask the FCC to use interference rules for what is plainly a social policy. To the contrary, as the Washington Post Editorial Board rightly points out, the FCC ought to have rules that acknowledge reality. Bluntly, do we really want agencies to lie to us about technology rather than simply own the social policy?


For those freaking out over the possibility of adding “Loud Cell Phone Talker” to the airline bestiary along with “Crying Baby Beast,” “Barfy Neighbor” and “Snoring Person That Drops The Seat In My Lap,” I discuss a few things to give you hope before you start shooting out windows to pull cell phones out of planes.


More below . . . .


The FCC Is Not Going To Allow Cell Phone Use On Airplanes.

About 2 decades ago, the FCC determined that use of cell phones on airplanes could interfere with cell towers (which would interfere with everyone else’s use of terrestrial cell service) and possibly interfere with flight equipment. So the FCC prohibited all cell phone use on planes.


As explained in this Associated Press article, the FCC will look at a new technology that lets airlines offer cell service on airplanes the same way they currently offer wifi on airplanes. Planes without the special equipment installed would still ban the use of cell phones, and all cell phone use would still be banned below 10,000 feet (presumably because of possible problems for terrestrial systems). Furthermore, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates air travel, would need to decide whether use of cell phones creates problems for flight attendants trying to get everyone to watch the safety lecture for the umpteenth million time.


Furthermore, the FCC would not even approve the proposed new technology. it would issue a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” seeking comment on the new system. After taking comment from the public,if the FCC decides to go ahead, it will then potentially issue a “Report and Order” approving the new system. Given the way the FCC moves, we are at least 10-12 months away from an FCC Order approving technology to enable cell phone use on planes.


So Why does Everyone Think the FCC Plans To Allow Cell Phones On Airplanes.


This story begins with a rather unexceptional notice of an item scheduled for the next FCC Meeting and what happens when people unfamiliar with “FCC speak” read FCC communications without proper translators.


This all began when the FCC circulated the “tentative agenda” for the December 12 meeting. It includes consideration of a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to revise outdated rules and provide airlines with the ability to permit passengers to use mobile wireless services via onboard airborne access systems.” For those of us familiar with FCC speak, the words “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” means ‘first stage in the process,’ and ‘via onboard airborne access systems’ means “not with your usual cell phone but with some new technology the airlines will have to buy and then will likely charge you a gajillion dollars a minute to use, like they do with wifi.”


This was further clarified, for those of us that speak FCC, by a short statement from Chairman Wheeler talking about how awesome modern technology is and “looking forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry.” Again, to translate from FCC speak, this means: We have a bunch of coordination to do with another federal agency and stakeholders who don’t usually play at the FCC, so this may take awhile once we issue the order.”


To people who do not understand FCC speak, and do not bother to ask those of us that do, this apparently reads as: “The Chairman of the FCC wants give people with loud voices and bad breath the opportunity to shout in your ear while you are circling Chicago for four hours.”


Needless to say, the Chairman of the FCC and the Chief of the Wireless Bureau have now issued much longer statements unpacking this for the uninitiated. See Wheeler statement here, Bureau Chief Roger Sherman statement here, and mandatory FAQ here.


For those of you still hyperventilating about the prospect of cell phones on a plane. Consider the following additional facts that make it not so bad as you might think.


Even if the FCC approves the new technology, the FAA will need to approve things, which will introduce a lot more delay and may kill this altogether.  All the FCC is going to do is say that “this particular system is OK to use from an interference perspective.” The Federal Aviation Administration, which actually regulates airlines, will still need to change its rules to allow airplanes to install the new technology. That is the proper time for everyone worried about getting stuck next to Loud Cell Phone User for a cross-country flight.


Airplanes will still decide whether or not to install the new system, and will cdrtainly charge people for the service if they make it available. As noted above, this isn’t just using your cell phone. Even after the FAA approves use of the new technologies, airlines will decide whether or not to install it and how to operate it. Assuming airlines decide to go ahead and install the system (which they may not, in light of passenger and flight crew objections). Airlines will have the option to charge for the privilege, assuming they install the new technology at all. The odds of someone talking all the way from D.C. to L.A. drop substantially if it costs a dollar a minute or some such for the privilege.


This isn’t just about voice, it’s also about dataEven if we don’t allow Loud Cell Phone User to talk, there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to access data in transit. Most planes have wifi, and the world has not ended — in part because airlines still prohibit people from using voice apps on planes. So why not give people another option to download data?


There Are Plenty of Reasons Even Nice People Really Want To Call Home. I have often found myself in the situation where my plane is either seriously delayed or, amazingly, coming in early. I can think of other reasons as well why I might want to call home briefly during a flight. Even people who despise the concept of cell phones on planes as a general rule have probably experienced at least on time in flight when being able to make a call (or download something) would have been really appreciated.


And no, not every plane has those uber-expensive Air Cell phones.



Please Do Not Ask Federal Agencies To Lie For You.


Finally, consider the problem for people trying to develop new technology and needing to get FCC approval. How much crap does the FCC already get for supposedly using technical decisions like interference protection to resolve social policy questions? Do we really want to establish a precedent that because people find the prospect of sitting next to Loud Cell Phone User annoying we want the FCC to ignore its rules and lie to us for convenience? And those of you clever wags saying “but the FCC already does that,” do you really want to make that official policy?


If people really get that annoyed about the prospect of sitting next to Loud Cell Phone User, then get Congress to pass a law banning cell phone use on planes. Congress doesn’t need to justify their decision with bogus interference complaints. Congress can just say: “Enough voters are freaking out at the prospect of sitting next to Loud Cell Phone User that we have decided to pass a law against using cell phones one planes.”


But until that happens, we ought to encourage the FCC to do the job its supposed to do — evaluate new technologies and determine if they cause harmful interference. And, in the meantime, I recommend people calm down. There will be no mother—ing cell phones on your mother—-ing planes anytime soon.


Stay tuned . . . .

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