Draft rules would license airlines to operate on-board base stations for data and/or voice service

Almost everybody agrees: letting airline passengers talk on cell phones is a terrible idea. Nobody wants to fly cross-country strapped in next to a blabbermouth. If the matter were up for national referendum, there would be no doubt as to the outcome. Even the people who don’t trust the government to get anything right will make an exception: they want the regulators to silence the individual in the next seat.

The problem is finding a regulator having the authority to do this.

The FCC is one place to look. And indeed, since 1991 its rules have prohibited the use of in-flight cell phones, at least on the original cell frequencies at 800 MHz. The ban originated because, in earlier times, airborne cell calls posed a threat to cell phone operations on the ground. (Contrary to many reports, protecting electronic equipment on the aircraft was never the objective.)

Since those days, however, engineers have figured out how to place a miniature base station on board the aircraft, which removes the threat to ground-based calls. Details are here. In addition to keeping the on-board phones at very low power levels, the base station equipment deliberately creates radio noise in the cabin that keeps the phones from attempting to communicate directly with base stations on the ground.

In the view of the FCC – whose mandate covers radio interference, but not peace and quiet in the air – these technical developments have rendered the ban outdated and superfluous. The agency is not, in the words of its chairman, the “Federal Courtesy Commission.” With the issues of radio interference resolved, a majority on the Commission feel it is time to back off. Their recently issued Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would drop the current prohibition against phone use at altitudes above 10,000 feet, leaving each individual airline to make the call (so to speak) on its passengers’ cell phone use.

The mere elimination of the prohibition would not, of course, require airlines to allow passengers to use their phones. Moreover, the airlines would have some flexibility in what services their passengers can use. For example, an airline could program the equipment to allow the use of 3G and 4G data services while blocking voice calls.

In addition to eliminating the existing prohibition, the NPRM proposes two other sets of changes. One would establish technical requirements and a licensing program for the on-board base stations. Any airline wishing to provide airborne mobile service would have to install and operate what the FCC calls “Airborne Access Systems” in their planes. These would consist of hardware and software that enable passengers to use their phones, and also enable the airline to manage services on the plane. Airlines will need FCC licenses to operate the Airborne Access Systems. Those flying internationally already have individual FCC licenses, which must be modified to cover cell operations. Domestic-only airlines, whose aircraft radio equipment can otherwise be “licensed by rule,” will need individual licenses for the on-board cell equipment.

The other change would make the rules uniform across all frequency bands that provide cell and cell-type service, beyond the existing prohibition on the 800 MHz frequencies that served 1980s-era cell phone systems. The FCC has since authorized cell-like operation on other frequencies that provides services essentially indistinguishable from 800 MHz services, plus data services in several other bands. The NPRM proposes that Airborne Access Systems be permitted – but not required – to operate across all bands accessible by mobile devices.

Will the terrestrial cell carriers go along? To communicate with people’s phones, the aircraft-borne base stations will have to use the same frequencies that are already licensed to AT&T, Verizon, and others that provide service to the phones on the ground. The FCC says the proposed airborne operations will not impair ground-based operations, and so will not infringe on the carriers’ license rights. The carriers challenged this same reasoning once before, and lost. They may try again. Or, seeing that the proposed regime would have passengers’ phones “roaming” while in the sky, the carriers might prefer to let the rule change go forward so as to recoup roaming fees.

The two Republican members of the Commission dissented. They are concerned about the airborne base stations intruding on the carriers’ licenses. They ask how an airline can be licensed to provide cell service without becoming subject to the full range of wireless-phone-company regulations. They wonder whether the proposed rules might make it easier for terrorists to coordinate in-flight attacks. And they side with the flight attendants who predict higher incidences of air rage.

The FCC notes that the airborne cell phone equipment may separately be subject to FAA safety regulation. But the FAA may go farther. On the same day that the FCC voted to adopt the NPRM, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced that his department will begin a process to look at the possibility of banning in-flight calls.

Comment due dates for the FCC proceeding are not yet available. But you don’t have to wait; you can tell the FCC what you think right now. Just browse to this link and submit in Docket No. 13-301.