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Our Role in Expanding Inflight Mobile Wireless Services

by: Julius Knapp, Chief, Office of Engineering & Technology and Roger Sherman, Acting Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

December 5, 2013

The Federal Communications Commission’s proposal on inflight mobile wireless services on airplanes is consistent with the Commission’s role as an expert agency. We would like to offer additional information about why the Commission is taking this action now and provide a little more insight into what the proposal entails.

The FCC is an independent agency that is charged with overseeing the communications industry and communications technology, including technical, legal, economic, and policy-oriented issues.  The agency was created in 1934 to oversee the networks of telephony and broadcast and, eventually, cable and wireless carriers.  In fulfilling its legal obligations, the FCC must act consistently with the public interest, convenience, and necessity.  As the expert agency on communications, it is the FCC’s role to re-examine our rules in light of new technology and to eliminate unnecessary regulations when appropriate.

Under the proposal, which will be put out for public comment, the default will still be (and in fact will more clearly be) that the use of mobile wireless services is prohibited, absent specialized onboard equipment.  If the new technology isn’t installed, the prohibition remains.  If the new technology is installed, airlineswould still have the ultimate say on whether and how to provide service – including the ability to program the system not to handle voice calls (while allowing text, email, and web browsing).  In addition, systems can also be turned off if necessary for safety announcements and emergencies.

It’s important to note this proposal is, indeed, only a proposal and that it asks many questions. Like all our rulemakings, the public has the opportunity to comment on the proposal over a period of months once a proposal is voted by the full Commission. We will not make a final decision before carefully reviewing those public comments.

With that in mind, the proposal is a technical one that would revise an existing prohibition on the use of mobile wireless services when airborne. This outdated rule was put in place 22 years ago during the era of first generation cellular systems (think car-phones) because of concerns about interference to systems on the ground. 

So much has changed since then. The great network evolution driven by Internet enabled devices, services, and apps was just getting started. The original voice-only analog technology has long since been replaced by digital technology. The Internet was in its early stages. Email was in its infancy, while texting and social media did not yet exist.

Today, technology has evolved to allow the provision of mobile wireless service onboard aircraft without causing harmful interference to terrestrial networks. This has been done internationally for years, and we are confident it can be done here at home – we will develop a full technical record on the proposal to make sure that’s the case.  

To be absolutely clear, the FCC is not proposing to mandate that cell phone use be permitted aboard aircraft. Many are concerned that adoption of this proposal will result in a less-enjoyable travel experience caused by other passengers engaging in unreasonably loud phone conversations during flight.   As frequent flyers ourselves, we understand and empathize with these concerns, but it is important to keep in mind that it is not within the FCC’s jurisdiction to set rules governing concerns about passenger behavior aboard aircraft. That role is properly left to the FAA and the airlines after consultation with their customers.

Consumers today rely on their devices to stay connected, regardless of location. The proposal would create a way for passengers to utilize their devices over their mobile wireless networks for email, texting and Internet use. Many consumers can already use Wi-Fi services onboard aircraft for these purposes.  The proposal would provide more competition in the marketplace and give consumers more choices to use their devices in the manner that works best for them—either through Wi-Fi or their wireless provider.  The result is that consumers could potentially have access to similar services aboard aircraft that they have come to rely with their mobile wireless networks on the ground.   

The FCC’s proposal reflects its obligation to review and eliminate or modify rules that are no longer justified. As the expert agency charged with overseeing technology policy and interference issues, we believe it is appropriate for the Commission to consider this matter fully.     

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