US FCC considers lifting ban on cell networks in flight

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The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will consider lifting a ban on using cellular phones’ 800mHz frequency in flight during a meeting on 12 December, which could provide more choices in providers for airlines looking to implement voice calls and texting services during flights.

The commissioners will consider moving forward a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on updating the rules to allow the service above 10,000ft, shows a tentative agenda announced by commission chairman Tom Wheeler today.

“Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband,” says Wheeler in a statement. “Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues,the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

The FCC’s review of the proposed rule comes less than a month after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would update its rules to allow portable electronic devices (PEDs) to be used in airplane mode throughout all phases of flight. However a FCC official says the decision was a “completely separate proceeding.”

Even so, the FAA says it is on board to support the commission.

“We are prepared to work with the FCC as they consider expanding in-flight mobile broadband,” the FAA tells Flightglobal.

The FCC’s ban on cellular networks is focused on potential interference to wireless networks on the ground, rather than to aircraft systems.

The proposed rule, which is not yet public, involves allowing aircraft flying domestically to use cellular services transmitted through picocells, says an FCC official. That equipment, like wi-fi systems, would need to be approved by the FAA in order to be installed on aircraft.

If enacted, a new rule reversing the ban could pose big opportunities for mobile service providers like OnAir and Panasonic Avionics subsidiary AeroMobile, which have already installed picocells on hundreds of aircraft around the world for airlines like Emirates, Etihad, Air France and Virgin Atlantic.

Both companies have indicated support for relaxed cellular regulations and say that the services give consumers flexibility to pay for the services through their home carriers rather than through a separate credit card transaction.

Some international carriers may be flying picocell-equipped aircraft on flights that terminate in the USA today, but they are required to turn the service off when entering the US airspace in accordance with the FCC regulations. Whether these international carriers would be considered in any proposed rule from the FCC is unclear.

Although the FCC’s rules ban cellular networks in flight, it has not precluded every connectivity provider from being allowed to offer voice calls in the air.

Gogo recently launched its Text & Talk product, which allows passengers to make and receive calls and texts through a mobile application that is designed to be very similar to the interface that passengers would use to make calls on the ground.

The new product has not yet been rolled out on a commercial aircraft yet, but the connectivity provider expects it to be live on an airline by the first quarter of next year regardless of whether the proposed rule goes through.

“It’s wi-fi based, so it will work regardless of what the FCC decides,” Gogo tells Flightglobal.

Gogo notes that an advantage of its system is that it does not require installation of the picocells on its aircraft, which could pose high costs to airlines.

While mobile providers like OnAir and Aeromobile have been pushing to relax the cellular ban for several years in hopes of pursuing a brand new market, the enthusiasm for mobile services is not shared by all.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) union, which represents nearly 60,000 flight attendants, say that allowing cell phone calls could pose safety risks such as passenger conflicts or making crew instructions hard to hear.

"AFA opposes any changes that would allow in-flight voice calls,” says the union in a statement. “Flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment. Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe.”