Notice & Comment

FCC’s Proposes Changes to Rules Regarding In-Flight Calls, by Elisabeth Ulmer

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) is seeking public comment on allowing in-flight mobile use, including calls, texting, and data services. At the open commission meeting on December 12, 2013, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau introduced the notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) to revise its outdated rules and give airlines the option of offering mobile wireless services via onboard airborne access systems.

The FCC prohibits in-flight mobile use because of concerns that it would interfere with wireless networks on the ground. However, there are now onboard airborne access systems available that would prevent such disruption and allow for the use of mobile devices during flight. Some airlines in Europe and Australia already permit the use of mobile communications services in flight.

The FCC proposes continuing to prohibit in-flight cellular use and extending the ban to all frequency bands. The NPRM would allow airlines to “voluntarily opt into offering in-flight mobile services” by taking two affirmative steps:

  1. “Apply[ing] to the FCC for a modification of their existing aircraft station authorization under Part 87 of the Commission’s rules; and
  2. Install[ing] and operat[ing] an airborne access system to manage in-flight use of mobile wireless devices.”

The FCC based its reasoning for allowing in-flight mobile services on its duty to regulate technology and update outdated rules. Now that the technology is available to ensure non-disruptive in-flight mobile use, the FCC rule banning it for its interference is obsolete. According to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, “[m]odern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules.”

In its Q&A about the proposed rule change, the FCC further emphasizes that the final decision about in-flight mobile use rests with each airline: “[u]ltimately, if the FCC adopts new rules, it will be the airlines’ decision, in consultation with their customers whether to permit the use of data, text and/or voice services while airborne.”

The possibility of in-flight calls has generated negative attention among airlines and consumers. Delta Air Lines and Jet Blue have both decided to prohibit in-flight calls because of unenthusiastic customer feedback. For instance, a 2012 Delta Air Lines customer survey revealed, “64% of passengers said the ability to make phone calls inflight would have a negative impact on their onboard experience.” United Airlines is also leaning toward not allowing in-flight calls.

While the FCC views its role as solely “to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight,” Anthony Foxx, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation (“DOT”), has said that the duty to “determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers” belongs to the DOT. As a result, the DOT has announced its intent to initiate proceedings to ban in-flight calls.

This post was originally published on the legacy ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice Notice and Comment blog, which merged with the Yale Journal on Regulation Notice and Comment blog in 2015.

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