It seems that the the discussion of in-flight electronics use in the United States is ramping up. A couple weeks ago the FAA announced that they will be examining broader use of electronic devices – but not phones – on flights. That effort is in progress and you can add your input here if desired. But what about phone usage? The FAA was directed by Congress to investigate the possibility of permitting phone usage based on how it is being done in other countries. Their report was released in draft form this week, with promising results. Sortof.
The report is brief – only 9 pages – and the results are not all that surprising. The FAA sent out a survey to a bunch of other countries and compiled the results. They basically say that if the service is permitted then it is only when a pico-cell is installed on board, allowing the phones to connect there rather than to ground stations. And, where permitted the phone usage isn’t a problem at all:
The civil aviation authorities reported no confirmed occurrences of cell phones affecting flight safety on aircraft with on-board cellular telephone base stations.
None of the civil aviation authorities reported any cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations
So why won’t we be seeing pico-cells installed in the USA anytime soon? Turns out that the FCC is part of the problem. They ruled many years ago that cellular phones could not be used in-flight and, despite advances in the technology on the ground and in the air, that rule still exists today in the form of 47 CFR Part § 22.925:
Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off.
So even if the FAA approved pico-cells for use on airplanes it wouldn’t matter unless the FCC rule is changed. Should the FCC choose to alter their rule then the responsibility to validate and approve pico-cell systems would fall to the FAA. But, as noted in the FAA report to Congress, that’s pretty much a moot point today:
Currently, no US airline operates [pico-cells]systems because of the FCC rules.
So, will the rules change? Probably not soon. Among other things, Congress seems to be asking the wrong folks to work on the issue.
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