FCC wants to ban in-flight cell phone calls; DOT intends to hear from users


It has been a widely known belief that your cell phone call will interfere with the in-flight navigation system and might cause a crash. Myth busted! FCC, yes FCC not FAA, banned all in-flight calls back in 1991 for risks that it might lead to plane crashes. There was a brief window where the FCC considered to lift the restrictions on wireless devices. However, the FCC had inconclusive mixed information regarding whether the devices do or do not interfere with the aircraft navigation system. They quickly abandoned the idea and decided to keep the status quo.

The real deal

When in a moving vehicle while placing a call, the signal jumps from one cell site to another as it goes out of range. Older cell site experience echoes and results in a call transfer from one tower to another. Since airplanes move faster, electronics on the plane might cause interference with each other that might become an obstruction on the emergency and government systems.
The problem is more about the ground networks as they scramble to route the call to the nearest tower in a split second as the plane passes by. Although there is limited information regarding the influence of cell phones on the planes and the dangers they pose, there are just some overcautious flyers that become uneasy with the though t. Another problem it poses is the battle between service providers as it jumps from one provider’s tower to another. If you fly often, you may have had the time to get your roaming service turned on, but for those who did not, they might get outrageous roaming charges. It just makes sense to limit the calls when you arrive at your destination and use the local phones

FCC is now rethinking of changing this 23-year old restriction by allowing voice communications above 10,000 feet. Although old fashioned lobbyists and legislators plan to counter this motion, the agency states that the 2-decade long prohibition is no longer applicable since there have been a lot of technological advancement in the mobile industry. This is accompanied by FAA’s 2011 study from 11 countries with reports from civil aviation authorities with zero accounts of cell phones that negatively affected the aircraft flight safety.

Despite strong argument regarding the harmless effects of in-flight calls to the navigation system, the Department of Transportation is still unsure about it since it could pose a problem with flyers and customers who are uneasy with the idea. DOT Secretary stated that they had received concerns in the past few weeks raised by travelers, airlines, members of Congress, flight attendants, and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on their mobile phones during the flight. The ban will no longer be leaning towards aircraft safety but more on a role of consumer protection.

In the coming days, these will be applied when the ruling gets adopted:

• Altitude limit
FAA has already lifted the ban on portable electronic devices such as Amazon Kindles and iPads saying that they do not cause any interference below 10,000 feet. Proposal of allowing calls in the same altitude soon followed.

• Airline Limit
A poll of favoring those against the new policy was released last Wednesday by Associated Press-GfK which influenced the revision of this policy. FCC has proposed to transfer the last say from the government to the airlines regarding the permission of calls in flight. With this in mind, Delta Airlines has explicitly declared that there won’t be any changes unlike most Middle East and European airlines which have allowed it for years now.

Whenever you are near a mic or a speaker system when you receive a call, you would hear interference emanating from the speakers. It seems that the speakers act as a sound resonator, and it converts the incoming call signal to noise on the speakers. In the same manner, early wireless headsets were also able to eavesdrop on phone calls which used wireless receivers. Few are not familiar with this crosstalk as there are less of wireless handsets, and more use of cell phones.

In the more than two decades since the FCC issued the regulation limiting phone calls on planes while in flight, there have been a lot of technologies which makes the discussion moot and academic. There are several reasons for this:

• The bandwidth used is not the same any longer. Radio communication from the cockpit is different from the bandwidth used by cellphones. When the FCC issued its directive, cell phone signals were sent via CDMA. This was the standard at the time. Even then, the signal which was causing communications problems were analog signals from older cell phones.

• Cell phones use lower energy than before. Today’s cell phones use lower signal strength and better power management. This ensures that the battery would last longer. The signal strength from cell phones is no longer capable of disrupting in-flight communication.

• Towers are placed closer together. One reason for lower cell phone signals is a more compact array of cellphone sites. There are more cell phone towers, at closer distances to one another. This also means that the towers do not have to use more power to reach or relay signals from other cell sites.

Technology has moved since the regulation limiting cellphone use was introduced. The problems of flight communications twenty years ago no longer exists. Cell phones cannot interfere with an airplane’s communications equipment. In the meantime, the DOT has put up notices and is surveying the public’s opinion about lifting the restrictions.

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