The independent blog on spectrum policy issues
that welcomes your input on the key policy issues of the day.

Our focus is the relationship between spectrum policy
and technical innnovation.

A net neutrality free zone: We pledge no mention of any net neutrality issues before 2018.

When they deserve it, we don't hesitate to criticize either NAB, CTIA or FCC.

Cellphones on Airplanes:
Here We Go Again!


As the Commission approaches 2014 with urgent and critical decisions on IP replacing analog telephony and the incentive auction, it is puzzling that it suddenly want to consider the res judicata issue of cell phone use on airplanes. (Note this is not literally cellphone use on airplanes since use of a full power cellphone at high altitude hits many different cells and ties up significant cellular capacity. The system talked about is the system now used in Europe with essentially a low power femtocell on the aircraft that is connected to the ground via satellite or a noncellular air-to-ground frequency.)

Why does this sound familiar?

Because the Commission considered this very issue in
Docket 04-435, 9 short years ago. Officially, that docket was terminated without a decision because

“(t)he comments filed in response to the NPRM provide insufficient technical information on whether the use of cellular phones onboard aircraft may cause harmful interference to terrestrial networks.”

But a quick review of the record shows that 8,123 (!!!) comments were filed (a large number for EMC issues) and most of them they deal with other than electromagnetic interference issues. Here is a typical comment filed:

I heard on the radio that the FCC is considering allowing cell phone usage on planes. I most urgently beg you NOT TO DO THIS, in the interests of public safety.

The AP article on the FCC’s rejection of the proposal was clear

Striking a blow for cell phone haters everywhere, a government agency on Tuesday said it will keep a rule in place that requires the divisive devices to be turned off during airline flights.The reasoning behind the decision was technical. But the avalanche of comments the Federal Communications Commission has logged from airline travelers have been nothing short of visceral.

If the cellular industry want to have more cellphone use in places where it presently is missing, you blogger humbly suggests they do something about making such use LESS OBNOXIOUS as was made clear in the comments 9 years ago. Here is some guidance from the manual of a cell phone sold in Japan. Even see this in a US cellphone manual or advertising from a US carrier?

manners mode2
From the manual for a cellphone sold in Japan

We would also urge the industry and proponents of cellphone use in aircraft to review the 2005 study Motorola commissioned study by Don Norman on “Minimizing the annoyance of the mobile phone: The Annoyance, Irritation, and Frustration of The Mobile Phone -- A Design Challenge” and seriously consider Mr. Norman’s recommendations that seem to have been ignored so far.

Cellular technology can add a lot to our society and economy but when poorly designed and promoted it can also contribute to both antisocial use and social friction. The social friction resulting from much current cellphone use, we believe, was the cause of the Docket 04-435 backlash and will continue to be the case unless industry starts addressing it as Japanese industry has.

Initial Twitter response

Tip O’Neill, mentor of Chmn. Ferris, famously said “all politics is local”. This is why this initiative is doomed unless the industry “wakes up and smells the coffee”.

Doesn’t the industry ever wonder why people want to jam their product? Let me give them a hint: hotels might have a financial incentive to jam cellphones to get guests to use overprice phones in their rooms. But this is not a problem in practice. Illegal jamming by private parties is generally addressing obnoxious or unsafe uses of cellphones.

Cecilia Kang reports in the Washington Post, FCC sees backlash after proposing to allow in-flight cellphone calls on planes”, that there is someone who actually likes this proposal.

cea logo
She quotes Julie Kearney, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association as saying “We are pleased that the FCC is moving forward to review its rules relevant to the use of wireless devices on airplanes,” Ms. Kearney also is reported to have said that the rules would have to strike a “critical balance between ensuring airline travel safety and allowing airline passengers to use their devices to stay connected, informed and entertained while on board.”

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


If you want an alternative viewpoint, here is “The FCC should get out of the way of cellphones on planes” by Stephen Stromberg, an oped from the Washington Post

I contacted CTIA and asked if they had a statement on the issue, the response was “We do not have a statement.”

Oddly, on CEA’s home page there is this listing of news items. However all day today (11/22) the indicated link lead to a blank page. Did CEA post something and then withdraw it while leaving the title on its home page? I have asked CEA and haven’t heard a response.


CEA Reaction to FCC Chairman’s Statement on Consumer Access to In-Flight Mobile Wireless Services” is now available on the CEA website. In it Julie Kearney, vice president of regulatory affairs and Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, are quoted as saying:

“Of course, any liberalization of the use of wireless devices on airplanes should not negate general common courtesies. Engaging in phone conversations in flight may prove technically feasible but many may find it socially undesirable…CEA has always held this view and urges airlines to exercise good judgment. All stakeholders should work together to ensure that passengers continue to enjoy comfortable air travel, if voice communications are permitted.”

We congratulate CEA on addressing issues that are “socially undesirable” and hope that the mainstream cellular industry also addresses the social implications of today’s cellular use.

Also to be perfectly objective, the Washington Post on 11/24 published an editorial entitled “The FCC makes the right call on cellphones on planes”. The Post writes

“The immediate impact of the FCC ridding the country of its unnecessary rule, then, may well be small. Yet we hope that carriers explore their options to bring air travel into the 21st century, with all its pluses and minuses. While some passengers mourn the disappearance of their last disconnected refuge, others will embrace the convenience of connection. Either way, there’s no reason for the government to play referee.”

blog comments powered by Disqus