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The Federal Aviation Administration recently lifted its ban on personal electronic devices, such as iPads and Kindles, under 10,000 feet. But the FCC’s announcement that it would discuss its phone prohibition at its Dec. 12 meeting came as a surprise.
"I was not aware this was anywhere near the front burner. I didn’t even know it was on the stove at the commission," says Harry Cole, a communications regulations lawyer at Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth in Arlington, Va.
Angela Giancarlo, a former FCC official and now a partner at law firm Mayer Brown, says the proposal was in the works before Wheeler became chairman. She suspects that the FCC expected the proposal would be greeted favorably because it could allow passengers to remain connected.
The FCC banned calls in flight more than two decades ago because of concern they could interfere with multiple cell towers on the ground as planes fly at hundreds of miles per hour. Since then, there has been new technology that can be installed directly on planes. Cellphones in flight would connect to those airborne systems rather than the towers on the ground, eliminating the interference problem. The FCC notes that such systems have been deployed elsewhere around the world without problems.
If phone calls are eventually allowed on planes — whether through Wi-Fi or traditional means — a company still has to install that equipment on aircraft. That company, in partnership with the airline, would likely charge a fee, the way Gogo and Row 44 now charge for Wi-Fi service. Cell carriers probably wouldn’t profit off such calls.
Amtrak and many local commuter railways have created quiet cars for those who don’t want to be trapped next to a loud talker. It’s easy to envision airlines offering "quiet rows," although there will probably be an extra fee to sit there.
Ultimately, the FCC is going to make its decision based on safety, not public opinion, says Harold Feld, a senior vice president at advocacy group Public Knowledge.
"The decision on this is going to be made on the basis of real engineering facts and not about whether people enjoy being away from cellphones or not," Feld says.
U.S. airlines have tried in-flight calls before. Some passengers will remember bulky satellite phones that rested on the back of seats. Few travelers paid for the expensive calls. Airlines eventually ripped out the phones in favor of another distraction: seatback TVs.
With reports from AP Technology Writer Anick Jesdanun in New York and AP Business Writer Chris Rugaber in Washington.
Follow Scott Mayerowitz at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.
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