Trade groups back inflight calling using smartphones

Many members of the public cringe at the very idea that their seatmates on aircraft might be able to make inflight voice calls using their own smartphones, but trade groups representing network gear suppliers, consumer electronics makers and the high-tech sector are urging the FCC to end the ban on inflight calls.

The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) said in a joint FCC filing that they support the commission's proposal to remove what they called "outdated regulatory barriers for access to in-flight mobile connectivity."

The commission's plan has the potential to make in-flight mobile connectivity (IMC), "including data, text, and even voice connectivity," available to consumers aboard airborne aircraft, the three trade groups noted.

Despite public outcry over the FCC proposal, the groups contend that various stakeholders, "including IMC providers, off-board communications link providers, airlines and aircraft manufacturers, and industry associations, are generally supportive of enabling IMC in the United States."

The FCC proposal, made in December 2013, would give airlines the option to allow consumers to access broadband services when airborne through their existing wireless service providers, just as they would on the ground. The calls would first pass through an Airborne Access System, which would include a picocell that relays calls to the ground via a separate air-groundlink, such as a satellite band or the 800 MHz air-ground band, after which calls would be transferred to the terrestrial network. AAS technology is already used in numerous countries worldwide.

Even if the FCC were to lift its ban on calls made over mobile phones on aircraft flying above 10,000 feet, that would not fully open the door to the practice. The U.S. Department of Transportation would also have to give its blessing, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is already on record expressing concerns about allowing inflight voice calls. There is a possibility that the FCC and DoT might agree to OK inflight texting, email and other broadband services but not voice calling.

If all bans are lifted, the task of deciding where and when inflight calls might be allowed would fall to individual airlines. A Bloomberg article noted that American Airlines and US Airways do not allow voice calls over their onboard Wi-Fi systems, and Delta Air Lines has said its passengers are not fond of onboard calls. Further, inflight-connectivity provider Gogo has reported that none of its commercial airline customers permit voice calling over the Gogo system.

For more:
- see this joint release and filing (PDF)
- see this Bloomberg article

Related articles:
FCC votes to explore allowing in-flight wireless, but voice calls may be grounded anyway
The plane truth about in-flight calling
FCC opens door to allowing cell phone calls on airplanes
European Commission allows use of 3G and LTE devices on flights
Gogo enables smartphone talk, text over inflight Wi-Fi