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The FCC and Inflight Mobile Wireless Services

by: Roger Sherman, Acting Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

November 22, 2013 - 04:13 PM

There has been great deal of public discussion since the Commission announced yesterday that it would consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would seek comment on revisions to the Commission’s rules on mobile wireless services onboard aircraft. I want to clarify what adoption of the draft notice will really mean for consumers.

Without question, much of the response to the announcement was focused on the possibility that the draft proposal would open the door to allowing passengers to make voice calls in-flight. Many are concerned that consideration of this proposal will lead to unbearable situations for airline passengers stuck next to loud, one-sided phone conversations. I empathize with that sentiment completely.   

Under the FCC’s proposal, however, it is the airlines that have the ultimate say as to whether and how to provide additional wireless services – supplementing the Wi-Fi services they may already offer – onboard their aircraft while flying above 10,000 feet. If an airline chooses to provide this service, it could improve access to wireless data services while flying, facilitate the use of in-flight texting, or even bring competition – and potentially lower prices – to a new market for in-flight broadband. 

If – and only if – an airline decides to allow passengers to do so, would in-flight calls be permitted.   Airlines, consistent with FCC and FAA rules, will ultimately decide whether to offer airline passengers these services and how best to manage them, including whether to enable voice services. Moreover, an airline that decides to provide these options to its customers has total discretion to determine which options will be available. In fact, the new technology could give airlines greater control over the use of mobile phones on planes than the status quo,where mobile phones are often left on inadvertently and attempt to stay connected with wireless networks on the ground. 

If passengers want increased options for wireless data for the purpose of email, tweeting, texting, web browsing – but not making voice calls – an airline can install the technology and manage the service to meet the needs of its passengers.

As the expert agency on communications, it is the FCC’s role to examine how we regulate the industry, and address unnecessary regulations when possible. In this case we have an outdated rule on our books that has been overtaken by advances in technology. If the technological justification for our existing prohibition is no longer valid, then it is our responsibility to examine ways to update and modernize the rules through an open and transparent rulemaking process. But it is the responsibility of the airlines, in response to their customers, to determine how to apply that rule change to their in-flight services.

The proposal, if adopted by the Commission, would mark the start of this process, not the end. We hope that all interested stakeholders, including the airlines, flight attendants, pilots, the flying public, and others will review our draft proposal closely and let us know what they think is the best approach to increasing consumer access to wireless broadband services while flying.

Have questions? Review FAQ On Proposals to Expand Consumer Access to Inflight Mobile Services

Updated: November 22, 2013 - 04:35 PM
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