MIAMI — Earlier this week, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 in favor of reviewing antiquated rules which prohibit the use of mobile phones on board aircraft in the US. This rule was developed during the infancy of the technology – picture the Zack Morris phone – when analog devices ruled the world and their power output was actually quite high.
Fast forward a few decades and we are in the midst of several antiquated rules in the air being overturned. The Federal Aviation Administration finally lifted their equally antiquated rule prohibiting the use of personal electronics under 10,000 feet. It turns out that there really is no safety issue when using personal electronics at low altitudes.
Now that pico cell systems exist, which allow mobile phones to operate safely in-flight, why is there such a fight against the FCC lifting this rule? Why is the media fanning the flames, making the situation even worse? And wait a second…hasn’t this happened before?
Why yes, it has. In New York City, a small outfit called Transit Wireless has undertaken the massive task of rigging every underground subway station in the system with mobile phone connectivity. These networks enable 4G LTE data, SMS, and of course voice calls in a place passengers once only dreamed of.
When the system was first being rolled out, an endless stream of anti-phone stories were published. “It’s going to be a nightmare” some people exclaimed. You would have been forgiven for believing that the world as we knew it in New York City was coming to an end because of phone service in the subways.
Naturally, as service underground has expanded, people came to love it. Go ahead, take a look for yourself. Go to any underground station with cell service, and you will find people Tweeting, texting, emailing, and uploading selfies to Instagram. What you typically won’t find, however, is people making voice calls. When you do see it, calls are usually very brief.
Even more interesting, voice calls in the subway system are essentially free to anyone who has a phone, so they can talk to their hearts content, but you still don’t see it much. In the air, calls will not be free, not even close.
If your cell carrier decides to create a roaming agreement with the company providing the service in the air, it will be quite expensive. AT&T has such an agreement with OnAir on select international airlines, and charges a ridiculous $2.50 a minute for voice calls. On those airlines, there have been virtually no issues or complaints with loud passengers. The fears of air rage because of a loud passenger are totally irrational and without precedent.
Adding phone service in the air would also remove the annoying hurdle of connecting to a WiFi network, selecting a plan, entering all that personal information, a credit card, and so on. Your phone would simply connect to the mobile network automatically and away you go, just like on the ground.
Even better, airlines can literally flip a switch to disable the voice functionality of these on-board systems, while leaving data and SMS intact. There would be nothing stopping an airline like Delta from installing on-board pico cells, but only allowing data and messaging. And hey, it would be great for people who have sued claiming WiFi provider Gogo has an unfair monopoly in the air.
So, as some of the decision makers in the FCC and DOT ramble on about unrealistic terrorism concerns, the nightly news runs their stock footage of “man on plane with phone” for the ratings, and the unions shout that it is end of commercial aviation as we know it, remember – the subway did it first – and we’re all still alive.
As Mary Kirby, Editor of the Runway Girl Network said, “the inflight voice call debate is a red herring,” and I couldn’t agree more.