FCC to consider allowing cell phones on planes

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Wednesday kicked off efforts that could reshape the communications services...

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Wednesday kicked off efforts that could reshape the communications services available to airline passengers. 

The FCC has proposed to relax its ban on the use of cellular phones in flight. It will auction radio frequencies in the 800MHz band in the hopes of spurring new onboard services that could include voice, data and broadband internet access, the agency said in a statement.

The services could be provided for commercial, military and general aviation. The FCC proposed three possible configurations of the spectrum, all of which are designed to ensure at least two operators in that band, and will let private industry settle on one.

There is 4MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band set aside for air-to-ground communications, but only one service, Verizon Communications Airfone, is using that spectrum, according to the FCC.

The Airfone seatback phone service is expensive, limited to voice and not often used, commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement on the decision. The FCC granted Verizon Airfone a new, five-year, non-renewable licence on Wednesday, but limited that service to 1MHz of the 4MHz band.

Service providers that participate in the auction could choose an arrangement in which two carriers each have 3MHz of spectrum, overlapping in the middle part of the band, or one of two configurations that set aside a 3MHz band exclusively for one carrier and a 1MHz band exclusively for another.

"Our rules for the 800MHz commercial air-ground service has been locked into a narrowly defined technological and regulatory box and have kept passengers from using their wireless devices on planes," FCC chairman Michael Powell said.

The agency should not dictate business plans by choosing only one band plan, he said. Commissioners Copps and Jonathan Adelstein voiced concerns about auctioning an exclusive 3MHz licence, and said the remaining 1MHz license would not give a rival carrier enough bandwidth to effectively compete.

The agency also proposed allowing passengers to use standard wireless handsets and other devices via a "picocell," a small base station on the plane. Phones would also have to operate at their lowest power setting and not allow unwanted radio emissions to interfere with land-based cell networks.

FCC rules currently prohibit using cell phones after take-off, and US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations restrict the use of any mobile phones and other portable electronic devices to prevent interference to on-board communications and navigation gear.

In its notice of the proposed rules, the FCC is seeking public comment on whether the plan should apply only to devices operating in the 800MHz cellular band or include other types of phones, such as those in the personal communications systems or advanced wireless services bands. It also wants ideas about how the 800MHz air-to-ground spectrum could be used as a "pipe" between an aircraft and a network on the ground. The agency is co-ordinating with the FAA, which is examining its own rules, according to the FCC statement.

In his statement on Wednesday's decisions, Copps welcomed the idea of exploring the issue but said he was worried about the possible fall-out for airline passengers. "Many airline passengers do not relish the idea of sitting next to someone yelling into their cell phones for an entire six-hour flight," Copps wrote. He urged consumers to participate in the proposed ruling.

Stephen Lawson writes for the IDG News Service

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