FCC votes to explore allowing in-flight wireless, but voice calls may be grounded anyway

The FCC on Thursday voted 3-2 to explore whether to revise technical rules that prohibit in-flight cellular service, which could potentially open the door to mobile voice calls during airplane flights. However, the Department of Transportation indicated that even if the FCC were to remove technical limitations, it might ban in-flight calls anyway.

The three Democrats on the five-member FCC panel, led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, voted to seek public input on the proposal. The FCC said if an airline chooses to equip its aircraft with specialized onboard equipment that would prevent harmful interference with wireless networks on the ground, the airline could enable in-flight wireless broadband access to passengers, as well as potentially voice services. The new technology also would provide airlines with a high level of control over the in-cabin communications environment, the FCC said. Additionally, the FCC's proposal would not require airlines to install onboard access systems or to provide mobile wireless services to passengers on their fleets. Under the proposal, the use of mobile wireless devices would still be prohibited as a default, unless an airline installs an onboard system to manage the service.

Wheeler noted the FCC proposal is not about in-flight voice calls, but that it would encourage competition for in-flight services for text, e-mail and getting online, according to Bloomberg. Airlines or other agencies could prohibit talking on the phone. "This is a rule about technology," said Wheeler, who earlier Thursday told lawmakers it wasn't the agency's job to be the "Federal Courtesy Commission."

"It is not a rule about usage," he said.

However, the Department of Transportation, which oversees air travel, issued a surprise announcement Thursday, arguing passengers and the airline industry are overwhelmingly against in-flight voice calls and that it will consider banning such calls. A DoT decision on the topic would take precedence over an action from the FCC, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said his department has heard that airlines, fliers, flight attendants and lawmakers "are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight--and I am concerned about this possibility as well." He said it was the department's mission to decide if allowing in-flight voice calls is "fair to consumers."

For more:
- see this Bloomberg article

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