Wheeler on In-Flight Call Vote: We Aren't Federal Courtesy Commission

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler plans to make it clear to Congress that the FCC's planned vote Dec. 12 on in-flight phone calls will consider both updating what he calls the "outdated rule," but also maintaining and even expanding it.

He would clearly prefer the former option, and plans to tell Congress this week that "a vote not to proceed on seeking comments on this issue is a vote against regulatory reform."

Wheeler has caught some flak for the proposal—primarily the prospect of planes full of endless cell phone conversations—but according to his written testimony for a House Communications Subcommittee FCC oversight hearing Dec. 12—only hours before the planned vote—the chairman makes clear that this is a vote to seek public comment on both those options, and that in any event it would be up to the airlines to decide to allow in-flight calls.

He points out that the FCC prohibition had to do with interference issues, and that the technology "has been operational in many of the world’s major airlines since 2008 and has been demonstrated to resolve the interference problems on which the FCC rule is based."

"If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid," he says. "This is a simple proposition, as applicable to the rules about the telegraph (which we still have on the books and should be eliminated), and the rules about on-board interference, which technology has made unnecessary."

He says he understands the issue of disturbing other passengers, but that the vote is about considering a technological reality. "I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission," he says. "Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function. Technology has produced a new network reality recognized by governments and airlines around the world. Our responsibility is to recognize that new reality’s impact on our old rules."

To that end, Wheeler has been making some phone calls of his own. He says he has contacted the CEO's of the major airlines to deliver the following message: "we are not requiring them to do anything and that, absent new systems on their planes, the ban on mobile devices continues. I am reminding them that if they choose to install the new technology, it permits the airline to disable the ability to make calls while still allowing for text messaging, emails and web surfing."

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.