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Cellphones on Airplanes: Round 2

§ 22.925 Prohibition on airborne operation of cellular telephones.

Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off. The following notice must be posted on or near each cellular telephone installed in any aircraft:

“The use of cellular telephones while this aircraft is airborne is prohibited by FCC rules, and the violation of this rule could result in suspension of service and/or a fine. The use of cellular telephones while this aircraft is on the ground is subject to FAA regulations.”

Pandora John Waterhouse
Do we really want to open this Pandora’s Box?

Yesterday, 11/22, the NY Times reported that Chmn. Wheeler is clarifying his views on the cellphone on airplane proposal that he had announced the previous day. Here is the full statement:

“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.

“The job of the FCC with respect to this issue is limited to issues related to communications technology. Technology is available and being deployed today on flights outside the United States that permits use of mobile devices on planes without causing interference to cell phone networks on the ground. These advances in technology likely no longer warrant – on a technological basis – the prohibition of in-flight phone use with the appropriate on-board equipment.

“We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes. I feel that way myself. Ultimately, if the FCC adopts the proposal in the coming months, it will be airlines’ decisions, in consultation with their customers, as to whether to permit voice calls while airborne. The European Union has had a similar policy since 2008. That experience has demonstrated that it is possible to adjust the on-board communications equipment not to handle voice traffic, thus effectively shutting down any calls.

“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.”

In order to add some facts to this discussion, we have place at the top of this post the actual present FCC rule which probably goes back to the beginning of cellular in the early 1980s. Note that it forbids the use of cellphones “aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft” thus it is not focused on protecting the aircraft’s avionics which was the rationale for the FAA’s Kindle ban that was reversed recently.

While cellphones worked on aircraft on 9/11, use of basic cellphone technology from a high altitude, be is an airliner, a Piper Cub, or a balloon creates real problems for the terrestrial cellular system and this was the rationale for the original rule. At altitude such a phone illuminates many cell base station, either causing interference in many cells or tying up extra spectrum assets. However, today we have new technical options as Chmn. Wheeler alludes to: very low power picocells or femtocells can provide service to cellphones on the plane on standard cellular spectrum. Today’s cellphones, unlike the first generation, have a very complex transmitter power control system under the control of the base station the phone is communicating with. With the resulting use of very low power by both the consumer cellphones and the plane’s picocell or femtocell there is no impact on the terrestrial system and hence the original rule is not needed and could be replaced with a complex rule that stipulates how much power can be used and under what circumstances. (Note - the communications between the picocell/femtocell and the ground must be done on a noncellular frequency such as the longstanding “Airfone” spectrum or a satellite system.)

In the FCC Blog, Roger Sherman, Acting Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau states

As the expert agency on communications, it is the FCC’s role to examine how we regulate the industry, and address unnecessary regulations when possible. In this case we have an outdated rule on our books that has been overtaken by advances in technology. If the technological justification for our existing prohibition is no longer valid, then it is our responsibility to examine ways to update and modernize the rules through an open and transparent rulemaking process.

I fully agree with this general concept.

FCC’s petition black hole

black hole

The technical rationale for §22.925 no longer exists as Chmn. Wheeler stated and as I discussed above. BUT this is not the only technology that is forbidden by an anachronistic FCC rule. Why should this be an immediate priority? There appear to be no petitions requesting this change, while there are other technical petitions in FCC’s petition black hole that have sat without action for literally years. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone even advocating this change!

As I have discussed in the context of the history of Wi-Fi, that ubiquitous system came about from a directive from Chmn. Ferris to actively search for technologies being held back by anachronistic restrictions and to “free” those technologies so they could sink or swim in the marketplace on their own merits.

Now the marketplace for Wi-Fi technology is very different than the marketplace for cellphones on airplanes. Especially after the recently approved American/USAir merger there are fewer and fewer airlines these days and they are desperately searching for ways to extract more fees from passengers.

I strongly support the Commission searching for anachronistic technical restrictions and freeing technology to serve the public. That is what brought us Wi-Fi and that is what brought us the new WiGig 60 GHz technology for wireless connections of video in the home. But the FCC clearly has limited resources and the next year’s deliberations on the incentive auction and the transitions from analog telephony will be very time consuming for FCC leadership and staff. Shouldn’t FCC consider a wide variety of obsolescent regulations for review and prioritize them according to factors such as long term benefit to society and the economy?

If they can’t think of anything else more productive than cellphones on airplanes, they might want to start with ending the current prohibition on all nonexperimental spectrum use above 95 GHz.

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