Electronics on Planes: Permanent Rules Still Up in the Air

Carl Weinschenk

The use of electronic devices on airplanes always has been a sticky topic. While cellular communications still is off limits in the United States, Wi-Fi is allowed, though not for voice communications.

On the last working day of 2012, the Federal Communications Commission took a step – not a giant one, but a step nonetheless – to make the use of Wi-Fi on planes a bit easier. To date, the approval of gear has happened on an “ad hoc” basis. Though the process is not explained in the FCC press release announcing the Report and Order, the context makes it clear that it was a specialized and cumbersome “one-off” process.

The way in which the FCC is streamlining the process is spelled out in the press release. The bottom line is that more companies will be able to provide equipment and do so more quickly:

By reducing administrative burdens on both applicants and the Commission, the new rules should allow the Commission to process ESAA applications up to 50 percent faster, enhancing competition in an important sector of the mobile telecommunications market in the United States and promoting the widespread availability of Internet access to aircraft passengers.

That is only one of the news items on the airborne electronic communications front. In early December, Red Orbit reported that FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking that the rationale for banning use of certain devices, such as e-readers, be revisited. The request is to look at use during the entire flight, including especially sensitive takeoffs and landings. (Boeing, meanwhile, made combined aeronautic, culinary and farming news last month by using potatoes instead of passengers to test the impact of Wi-Fi signals on cabin-bound humans.)

Writing about whether and when airplane electronics rules will change has become a cottage industry. Brad Hill, a former vice president at AOL, offers a commentary at The Next Web that suggests the status quo on the use of electronics during takeoffs and landings will remain. It’s a good commentary that gives fair treatment to both sides.

The bottom lines seem to be that it is unlikely that an e-reader will impact the navigation of a plane – but not impossible. For that reason, the prohibition is likely to remain. In any case, the importance of changing what happens for a relatively short amount of time – the periods between the closing of the doors and when the plane reaches 10,000 feet and the reverse on the other end of the flight – seems minor.



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