Wheeler: Airlines Make Call About In-Flight Phones

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Friday said the FCC was leaving it up to airlines whether to allow voice connectivity in-flight, saying the FCC's proposal to update its rules was about the lack of technical impediments to mobile devices using aircraft onboard wireless systems.

Wheeler issued a statement in the wake of criticism, or at least cautionary concern, about his proposal to update rules on allowing wireless device use in-flight on airplanes.

After Wheeler announced Thursday that he had circulated an item to expand access and choice of in-flight mobile broadband, he got some pushback from Capitol Hill.

For example, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) Friday urged "caution and consultation" before extending in-flight use to voice calls.

"Playing 'Words with Friends' is different than passengers having lengthy, loud 'conversations with friends' while in the tight, inescapable confines of an airline passenger cabin," said Markey. "The FCC should work closely with the flight attendants and pilots who serve the passengers as well as consumers, airlines, and the FAA in updating these policies."

Wheeler said Friday that had always been the plan. "Yesterday we announced a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal that recognizes that there is no technical reason to prohibit mobile devices from interfacing with the onboard wireless data systems being installed on many aircraft. If the Commission adopts this proposal after the public has had the opportunity to comment it will be only a technical advisory, an update to our rules. There is nothing in the proposal that prohibits airlines from developing whatever in-flight phone usage policy they may wish," he said. In fact, he said, "We believe that airlines are best positioned to make such decisions. For this reason, our proposal does not impose any requirement that airlines should provide voice connectivity. We encourage airlines, pilots, flight attendants, and the public to engage in our upcoming rulemaking process."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.