FCC Mulls Airborne Mobile Phone Use

Faced with antiquated technical issues and political pressure, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week contemplated lifting the ban on cellular telephone use on aircraft.

The Commission proposed relaxing the current ban on wireless phone use during flights that was intended to avoid interference with both terrestrial and airplane communications. The FCC indicated it would allow in-flight cell phone use through a “pico cell” that would act as an antenna for onboard callers. (Pico cells are the smallest type of radio cells, extending just a few hundred meters in diameter.)

While the Commission also said it would work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and ensure interference issues were addressed, some analysts questioned the technical reasons for the current ban, citing politics instead.

“It is often a question of lobbying,” IDC director of wireless infrastructure Shiv Bakhshi told TechNewsWorld. “[The ban] makes a nice marketing scheme for the airlines.”

Reasons for Restriction

The FCC said it currently requires that handsets be turned off once an aircraft leaves the ground to avoid interference with terrestrial, or ground-based, cellular systems.

In addition, the FAA restricts the use of mobile phones and other portable devices on aircraft to avoid interference to onboard communications.

The FCC said that any steps it ultimately takes on lifting the cell phone ban on flights would still be subject to FAA and airline policies.

Still, the commission initiated the process of lifting the ban, with engineering advisor Jay Jackson telling TechNewsWorld that technology has advanced sufficiently to allow for the change.

“There isn’t as much interference potential with today’s handsets,” Jackson said, comparing the 5 and 7 watt handsets of the past and today’s handsets, which operate on less than 600 milliwatts of power.

Different Spectrums

Although there may have been technical limitations at the time the cell phone ban was established, according to IDC’s Bakhshi, it is unclear why the ban has remained in place, given that today’s cell phones and aircraft communications operate in different segments of wireless spectrum.

“[The spectrums] are very different, so there should never have been a problem,” Bakhshi said. “It is not clear why it has been kept that way.”

“The fact that they’re looking at it now — that is a step in the right direction,” he added.

The FCC called for public comment on the spectrum for the proposed cell phone use and whether devices operating on other spectrum bands, such as PCS or advanced wireless services, should be included.

The commission also asked for input on ways the 800 MHz cellular spectrum could be used to provide a communications pipe between airborne craft and the ground.

The FCC indicated it was also considering replacing current FCC restrictions with an industry-developed standard that guards against interference.

The goal is “to allow consumers to use their own wireless devices during flight,” according to a commission statement.

Issues No More

Yankee Group analyst Roger Entner said the technical reasons that were the basis for the ban have been eliminated by today’s cell phone technology.

“I think the technical reasons are over,” Entner told TechNewsWorld. “In the past, we had very strong phones that sent [signals] with a lot of power. Nowadays, that’s no longer really there.”

Entner said a pico cell approach as proposed by the FCC makes sense, to boost the signal of lower-power phones onboard an aircraft.

However, many travelers may appreciate the current cell phone ban as a rare break from constant communications, Entner added.

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