DOT mulls new rules that tackle Wi-Fi calling on planes

plane passengers
Airlines would be required to disclose their voice call policies to the extent that they permit voice calls under a DOT proposal that is circulating; small airlines would be exempt.

With a nod to Wi-Fi calling, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is taking comments on a proposal to regulate voice calls on passengers’ mobile devices on flights to, from and within the United States.

The DOT notes that the FCC currently prohibits the use of certain commercial mobile bands onboard aircraft, but that ban does not cover Wi-Fi and other means by which it is possible to make voice calls. In 2013, the FCC proposed lifting its existing ban, so long as certain conditions are met, and that’s still out there, but the agencies have different authorities to consider, and the DOT sees it as a safety issue.

“Consumers deserve to have clear and accurate information about whether an airline permits voice calls before they purchase a ticket and board the aircraft,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx in a written statement Thursday. “Today’s proposal will ensure that air travelers are not unwillingly exposed to voice calls, as many of them are troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight.”

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The DOT is proposing to require sellers of air transportation to provide adequate notice to passengers as to whether or not the carrier operating the flight allows passengers to make voice calls using mobile wireless devices. Under the proposed rule, airline carriers would be free to set their own voice call policies, to the extent otherwise permitted by law, so long as carriers provide adequate advance notice when voice calls will be allowed.  

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, citing aviation security and safety for crews and passengers, said it will continue to press for a complete ban of in-flight voice calls. “No calls on planes. Period,” the AFA said.

The DOT points out that many U.S. airlines currently offer Wi-Fi connectivity to passengers’ mobile devices using FAA-approved in-flight connectivity systems. The FCC does not prohibit voice calls over Wi-Fi; the FCC’s current ban relates to the use of certain commercial mobile spectrum bands. “Thus, many U.S. carriers currently have the capability of allowing their passengers to make and receive voice calls in-flight over Wi-Fi,” the DOT explained in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. (PDF) “It should be noted that the Department is unaware of any U.S. carrier that currently permits voice calls; airlines and their Wi-Fi providers typically do not offer voice service.”

The proposed rulemaking would regulate voice calls onboard aircraft as a matter of consumer protection, rather than as a matter of ensuring aviation safety or preventing cellular interference with ground networks, and it would apply to voice calls on passenger-supplied cellular telephones and other passenger-supplied mobile wireless devices, regardless of whether the call is made on a commercial mobile frequency, Wi-Fi, or other means.

“Under this proposal, the Department would not prohibit voice calls (although we seek further comment on that issue), but airlines would remain subject to any technical, safety, or security rules that do prohibit or restrict voice calls,” the DOT said. “Airlines would be required to disclose their voice call policies to the extent that they permit voice calls; those policies, in turn, will be based both on the airline’s own choices and on any existing rules affecting such calls.”

This latest proposal is part of a long-running debate over phones on planes. In February 2014, the Transportation department issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) regarding the use of mobile wireless devices for voice calls on commercial aircraft. In response to the ANPRM, a large majority of individual commenters expressed opposition to voice calls on the grounds that they are disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.

The current NPRM gives commenters 60 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register to submit their comments.

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