WASHINGTON The Transportation Department said Thursday that it would consider banning the use of cellphones for voice calls onboard airplanes, a reaction to public outrage at a Federal Communications Commission proposal to lift a rule that has long forbidden the use of mobile phones during flight.
Still, consumers are likely to soon be able to text, check email and connect to the Internet on their cellphones while their flight is higher than 10,000 feet.
The FCC voted 3-2 to go ahead with its own measure to solicit comment on whether to repeal the rule on voice calls. But all five commissioners said they shared the publics doubts about such a change.
After nearly three weeks of public complaints for even raising the possibility of passengers having to sit for hours while seatmates chatter on cellphones, the FCC chairman and the Transportation secretary agreed this week that there was a way to both promote technology and protect the public interest.
Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight, and I am concerned about this possibility as well, said the Transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx.
The department will consider whether allowing in-flight voice calls is fair to consumers, he said, in part by soliciting public comment.
This is not a rule about usage, said the FCCs chairman, Tom Wheeler. He added: This is a rule about technology, specifically new technology that allows cellphones to be used on airborne planes without interfering with wireless networks on the ground.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last week found that roughly 59 percent of Americans said using a cellphone to make a call should not be allowed during flights, while 30 percent said that it should.
Even younger, tech-savvy Americans are not keen on the idea of in-flight calls. An Associated Press-GfK poll, also conducted last week, found that 48 percent of Americans did not want to allow cellphone conversations on flights, while 19 percent were in favor of it. About 30 percent had no opinion.
Let me make clear whats going on here nothing will be different on your flight tomorrow, Wheeler said. He added, I dont want to listen to the personal conversations and the business deals of person sitting next to me on a flight.
Wheeler and the FCC were surprised last month by the flood of phone calls and emails expressing anger at the possibility that cellphone conversations would be allowed on flights.
Repealing the existing regulation is necessary, Wheeler said, given the commissions responsibilities.
If technology eliminates interference and therefore it eliminates the need for an interference protection rule, then we ought to eliminate the rule, he said.
The commissions two Republican members voted against seeking public comment on the proposed change. One of them, Ajit Pai, said removing the rule would not be in the public interest, because it would allow airlines to infringe on the rights of wireless companies, which have exclusive licenses to use the airwaves at given frequencies.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, concurred with the other two Democrats on the panel to ask the public about the cellphone proposal. But she also made clear that she was unlikely to support a rule that would allow for in-flight voice calls.
If we move beyond what we do here today and actually update our rules to allow calls on planes, we could see a future where our quiet time is monetized and seating in the silent section comes at a premium, Rosenworcel said. But worse, given the anger this proposal has generated and the negative response of so many of those who work on planes, I fear that our safety would be compromised.
Wheeler has regularly said that it would be up to individual airlines to permit the use of cellphones for voice calls.
Several airlines in Asia, Europe and Australia allow the practice, but with rules about where the devices can be used and for how long.
In a second cell phone-related measure, the FCC and the wireless telephone industry announced terms that would allow consumers to unlock a cellphone bought from one carrier so that it may work on anothers networks.
The rules will apply to devices bought from a cellphone company under a mandatory subscription plan, once the contract is fulfilled, and to prepaid cellphones no longer than a year from purchase.
Locked mobile devices contain software that prevents cellphones or tablets from being used on compatible mobile networks and can make it harder for consumers to keep the same phone when changing carriers.
Consumers win when they are armed with the right information and know their options, especially when it comes to navigating how to unlock a wireless phone after completing a contract, Wheeler said in a statement.
The wireless industry has opposed the measure until recently, but it is not likely to promote the practice. Its industry group warned consumers not to confuse what the measure would and would not let them to do.
Devices that work on one providers network may not be technologically compatible with another wireless providers network, said Steve Largent, president and chief executive of CTIA-The Wireless Association. Additionally, unlocking a device may enable some functionality of the device but not all.
For example, an unlocked device may support voice services but not data when activated on a different network.
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