An update: cellular service on planes, yea or nay

by Ned Levi on December 16, 2013

iPhone 5, photo courtesy of Apple Inc.

By now, most of the traveling public is aware the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed lifting the ban on cellphone use in planes while aloft, and is currently soliciting public comment. The ban has been misunderstood by passengers for years. Most passengers I know believe the ban was due to aircraft safety concerns.

In reality, the FCC prohibited using inflight cellular services due to concerns about harmful interference with wireless networks on the ground. It had nothing to do with airplane safety.

Many are upset about the potential consequences to air travelers if the airplane cell phone ban is lifted, but before you send your rant to the FCC, if you want it to be taken seriously, you must consider why the FCC put the ban in place, and what’s happened to make them consider ending it.

The FCC banned the use of cellular services, including cellphone calls, in 1991 when most every cellular system in the world used analog technology. The sophistication of today’s cellular services and handsets was virtually inconceivable in the early ’90s. In 1991 the potential problems from cellphone use in planes while aloft were real.

It’s been years since the cellular services industry eschewed analog for digital technology. In 1991, 2G digital cellular technology was first launched by Radiolinja in Finland. Today, in much of the world, cellular service suppliers are running high speed, high capacity 4G cellular services. The services, and the handsets which use them, are highly refined, compared to those in use at the start of the FCC ban.

In addition to the revolution in cellular services and handsets, specialized onboard electronic systems have been developed which can effectively prevent cellular interference problems with ground-based wireless networks. Companies like GoGo, with their “Text & Talk” system, have already demonstrated the effectiveness of this equipment.

Based on the FCC’s ban rationale, the transformation of cellular services and equipment, and the availability of specialized equipment designed to offer inflight cellular services without ground network interference, I see no basis for the FCC to continue the ban, and expect it to be lifted next year.

In my recent column, Will airlines need to install “Phone Booths of Silence?” I explained that my concerns about cellular and/or WIFI capability on airlines is solely about voice communication. That’s a real concern to me, despite a recent FAA report that in a recent study foreign civil air authorities reported no passenger “air rage” or “flight attendant interference” having occurred due to passengers using cell phones while flying. The FAA report indicated there were few complaints about a passengers being too loud, and that inflight cell calls were short, averaging just a minute or two in length.

Okay, the passengers with no choice but to listen to others making phone calls didn’t assault the callers, but how happy were they having to endure the calls? On a flight I took in Europe last summer, passengers making cellular calls weren’t attacked, but certainly got icy stares.

Personally, I put little faith in the usefulness of the report for the US market. One of the reasons is the cost of airplane cellphone use in Europe. European airline cellular providers are charging between $3 and $4 per minute, so phone conversations aloft tend to be highly directed and specific, not the mindless chit-chat passengers fear most.

We used to have telephones on planes years ago. They looked like the “Trimline” phones from the ’60s. At first, their novelty induced air travelers to use them despite their cost, but eventually went unused because their per minute price was too high. After a few years they disappeared.

I believe it’s likely cellphone user costs will drop from current European levels, if permitted in the US, due to profit motivation. Cellular services could be a new lucrative profit center for the airlines and their cellular providers. The equipment needed for the service in planes isn’t inexpensive, requires maintenance, and has a useful life, after which it would have to be replaced. The airlines/cellular providers will have to charge a fee which will entice travelers to make more than a few short calls per flight, in order to make a reasonable profit from the service.

As the price drops, the number of calls and their length will increase, and so will the irritation of passengers who are unhappy witnesses of the calls.

I also question the usefulness of the survey because of the significant difference I’ve noticed in the cellphone habits of Europeans while traveling, compared to Americans. One only needs to compare the heavy cellphone use on Amtrak in the US’ Northeast Corridor to that on Eurostar and other European trains. There’s a world of difference. Frankly, I’ve found Europeans speak more quietly, far less often, and their calls have a significantly shorter duration.

I’m for adding cellular service and allowing everything but voice communication, just as it is now, for WIFI use on planes inflight.

If you feel the same way, I suggest you contact your favorite airline(s) and tell them how you feel. In the near future, I believe they will be the gate keepers, deciding what cellular services passengers may use.

The longest flights across the continental US last about 5½ hours. In my opinion, inflight voice communication isn’t necessary and shouldn’t be permitted. Messaging, email and other silent communication services are more than adequate.

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