Never before has what can be called a regulatory advance been met with such a resounding chorus of folks suggesting that progress be halted and the old way of doing things maintained.
I am not talking about 3D printing, unsettling wearable computers, frightening robotics or, for that matter, nuclear energy. The advance that few people want to see, save the carriers, who will benefit greatly, is the right to engage in voice conversations on airplanes.
In mid-December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to allow cell phones on planes. According to the report on the vote at PCMag, the rule now is in a comment period. The tentative rules will not require airlines to allow cell calls. The default rule will be to not allow calls unless the airline installs the equipment and elects to make services available. The FCC also voted on related issues, which are described in the story.
It is, of course, possible to use non-cellular IP tools such as Viber and Skype for voice communications. In early December, according to Computerworld, JetBlue said that while it would discourage people from using its new higher capacity Sky-Fi service to make VoIP calls, it would not police them. There was a bit of an outcry over this wishy-washy approach. Thus, the company followed up by saying that it would enforce the rules against such applications and services after all.
Business travelers who seem to be living in fear of sitting next to gabby teens on a New York to LA flight have another reason to be hopeful. For one thing, Delta already has said no dice to the chatty crowd for both cellular and VoIP connectivity, according to CNET. Politico reported last week that Anthony Foxx, the chairman of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), is open to the idea of banning cell phone use. The story says that the FCC and USDOT rulings are discrete: The FCC is ruling on the safety of cellular communications while the USDOT, which runs the Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, can act in what is in the best interest of travelers.
In a story about the potential changes, PCWorld noted that few domestic airlines are likely to allow the services, judging from consumer reaction. Even those that would offer services likely won’t be set up to do so until well into 2014.
However, cellular use on planes already is legal in many countries. The story says that British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air France, KLM, Emirates, Aeroflot and Virgin Atlantic are among carriers that offer cellular services. Planes belonging to those airlines could begin offering services in U.S. airspace as soon as it is legal.
Perhaps the best news for those who fear the change is that cellular service isn’t as popular where it is offered:
In-flight cellular services typically are billed as international roaming, which carries a stiff premium. Partly because of cost, even passengers who can make cell calls on planes don’t do it that much, according to an FAA report issued in July 2012. The agency surveyed aviation authorities in other countries about in-flight cellular in the early days of such services. Based on the few responses it got, airliners weren’t bursting into a cacophony of one-sided conversations.
The story suggests that the calls that were made didn’t last long. That’s also good news, from the anti-cell perspective. The problem, however, is that the biggest reason the services aren’t used seems to be cost, and that obstacle would be eliminated with the IP-based services.