US paves way for in-flight cell phones

Updated: 2013-12-14 07:59

By Rob Lever in Washington (China Daily)

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US regulators on Thursday opened the door to allowing mobile phone use on airplanes - an issue that has stirred howls of protest over the potential for disruption in the skies.

The Federal Communication Commission's 3-2 vote came after Chairman Tom Wheeler said the action would merely publish new rules for public comment and determine the technical feasibility of in-flight phone use.

"This is a rule about technology; this is not a rule about usage," Wheeler said ahead of the vote.

He added that the issue has been "widely misunderstood" and that the agency was seeking only to determine if there are technical reasons for banning calling.

"If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid. It's that simple," he said.

Some 60 members of Congress signed a letter urging the regulatory agency to allow only text and Internet services in-flight, with no voice calls on cellular phones.

Wheeler said, however, that potential problems should be addressed in the rule-making process and that other agencies as well as airlines would be charged with determining whether to permit voice calls during flight.

"Without this proposal, you would not be able to e-mail or to text or surf the Web," Wheeler said. Separately, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted that the FCC's only role "is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in-flight."

Foxx said in a statement that his agency's responsibility "is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers" and that it "will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls."

FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel voted to move ahead on the proposal but voiced concern over the prospect of in-flight calls.

Rosenworcel said that even though FCC members were considering the matter as "technicians," that "does not absolve ourselves of the consequences of our decision."

She added that she feared an end to the prevailing quiet atmosphere in airplane cabins and expressed concern "that our safety would be compromised" by allowing such calls.

Commissioner Ajit Pai voted against the proposal, saying it "sets an unfortunate precedent when it comes to licensing" of a spectrum for in-flight communications.

Pai said the proposal might grant the spectrum to airlines at a time when mobile operators are spending "tens of billions" of dollars in spectrum auctions.

Pai also said safety and national security concerns had not been properly addressed and he was disappointed there had been no comment from law enforcement agencies.

Agence France-Presse

(China Daily 12/14/2013 page6)