Agencies hear concerns on phone chats aloft

By Edward Wyatt / New York Times News Service

Published Dec 13, 2013 at 12:01AM

WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation will consider banning the use of cellphones for voice calls onboard airplanes, a reaction to widespread public outrage over a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to loosen the rules.

Together, the two developments mean that consumers will probably soon be able to text and connect to the Internet on their cellphones at 10,000 feet, but not to make voice calls.

The two agencies said they had heard and wanted to respect public outcry at the prospect of being stuck for hours in close quarters next to a person gabbing into a cellphone.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight, and I am concerned about this possibility as well,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

The department will consider whether allowing in-flight voice calls “is fair to consumers” in part by soliciting widespread public comment on the issue.

The FCC voted 3-2 to go ahead with a measure to solicit comment on whether to repeal its technical rule that disallows the use of cellphones for any communications purpose once a flight is airborne. But all five commissioners say they share the public’s doubts about whether voice calls should be allowed.

“Let me make clear what’s going on here — nothing will be different on your flight tomorrow,” Tom Wheeler, the new FCC chairman, said. “I don’t want to listen to the personal conversations and the business deals of the person sitting next to me on a flight.”

Wheeler and the agency were blindsided last month when their addition of an item on airborne cellphones to the agenda for the December meeting was met with a flood of phone calls and emails expressing outrage at the possibility.

“This is not a rule about usage,” Wheeler said. “This is a rule about technology, specifically new technology that now allows cellphones to be used aloft without interfering with on-the-ground wireless networks.”

The move is necessary, Wheeler said, given the commission’s statutory responsibilities. “If technology eliminates interference and therefore it eliminates the need for the interference protection rule, then we ought to eliminate the rule.”

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