CHAIRMAN TOM WHEELER
Expanding Access to Mobile Wireless Services Onboard Aircraft,
Notice of Proposed
Rulemaking, WT Docket 13-301.
air travel is pro-free market, pro-competition, pro-consumer, pro-technology, and de-regulatory. It has
also garnered a great deal of attention and been widely misunderstood.
Let me say up front that, I get it. I don’t want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000
feet any more than anyone else. So then why are we still moving forward with this item?
To answer that question, let’s look at what this proposal does and does NOT do.
First off, today’s action represents the beginning of a process to collect information and consumer
input. As always, we will review input from the public before taking any final action.
Next, the status quo requirement that cellphones may not be used in-flight would be retained. The
prohibition, in fact, would be explicitly expanded. The current rule applies only to phones operating on
the 800MHz frequency band and ignores all other cellular frequencies. This regulatory inconsistency is
The rule change on which we seek comment would extend that prohibition to all frequency bands
unless the aircraft is outfitted with on-board equipment that manages a cellular signal before it has the
potential to interfere with terrestrial networks. Absent such equipment, the ban would remain in effect.
However, if an airline installs new on-board equipment, the FCC’s ban is no longer necessary.
Our engineering belief (on which comment is sought) is that it is technically safe to use the new onboard
equipment to prevent interference with terrestrial networks. The proposal would not require airlines to
either install such equipment, or to offer mobile wireless services aboard their aircraft. Airlines would be
free, within the confines of the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of
Transportation (DoT), to make their own decisions. We simply propose that because new technology
makes the old rule obsolete the FCC should get government out from between airlines and their
passengers. Where there is not a need for regulation, the free market works best to determine the
So how might this play out for consumers? If an airline decides to install an on-board access
system consumers would be permitted to use their existing mobile devices and not be limited to signing
up for WiFi. And the airline would be in total control of what types of mobile services to permit. A
mobile device can send texts and emails, and can surf the Web. A mobile device can also make a voice
call. The technology allows for the differentiation among such services. Thus, airlines would be free to
make their own determination whether to program the new equipment to block voice calls while
permitting texting, email and Web surfing, consistent with the rules of the authorities on aviation safety
and consumer issues: the FAA and the DoT. I am pleased that the DoT today announced that will begin a
process that will look at the possibility of banning in-flight calls.
Today’s proposal is intended to solicit input. It is not a final decision. We look forward to the
technology and consumer input this proposal will generate. We invite all interested parties to participate
and file comments.
Today’s vote is about more than just how you can use your mobile phone on airplanes; it’s about
how this agency should do its job.
The FCC is the expert agency on communications. It is charged with making technology-based
For over 20 years, an FCC rule from the analog era of cell phones has banned the use of mobile
devices on airplanes because of the potential to interfere with terrestrial networks below. But on-board
mobile access technology has been operational internationally with great success for the last five years. In
accord with that experience, and other data, the Commission’s engineers believe that there are no
technical reasons to prohibit such technology to operate in the United States. If the basis for the rule is no
longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid. It’s that simple.
The FCC is sometimes criticized for relying on outdated rules that do not reflect current
technologies or markets. This is a textbook opportunity to do something about eliminating an
unnecessary regulation of the FCC and letting the marketplace function. If we are serious about
eliminating outdated regulations that serve no purpose, the decision is clear. A vote not to proceed on
seeking comments on this issue is a vote against regulatory reform.
Finally, a word on process. Going back to Commissioner McDowell, there have been calls for
increased transparency in the matter in which the FCC presents issues to the public, notably that NPRMs
should include proposed rules. I support the calls for this reform. Such a rebuttable presumption allows
respondents to target their comments. Failure to include a rebuttable presumption from being the focus of
debate would not in the spirit of procedural improvement, and that is why I am pleased this Notice adopts
such an approach.
We need to update this rule for the benefit of consumers and to reflect accurately changing
technical realities. I urge support for an effort to start this process.
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