An update: cellular service on planes, yea or nay

iPhone 5, photo courtesy of Apple Inc.

By now, most of the traveling public is aware the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed lifting the ban on cellphone use in planes while aloft, and is currently soliciting public comment. The ban has been misunderstood by passengers for years. Most passengers I know believe the ban was due to aircraft safety concerns.

In reality, the FCC prohibited using inflight cellular services due to concerns about harmful interference with wireless networks on the ground. It had nothing to do with airplane safety.

Many are upset about the potential consequences to air travelers if the airplane cell phone ban is lifted, but before you send your rant to the FCC, if you want it to be taken seriously, you must consider why the FCC put the ban in place, and what’s happened to make them consider ending it.

The FCC banned the use of cellular services, including cellphone calls, in 1991 when most every cellular system in the world used analog technology. The sophistication of today’s cellular services and handsets was virtually inconceivable in the early ’90s. In 1991 the potential problems from cellphone use in planes while aloft were real.

It’s been years since the cellular services industry eschewed analog for digital technology. In 1991, 2G digital cellular technology was first launched by Radiolinja in Finland. Today, in much of the world, cellular service suppliers are running high speed, high capacity 4G cellular services. The services, and the handsets which use them, are highly refined, compared to those in use at the start of the FCC ban.

In addition to the revolution in cellular services and handsets, specialized onboard electronic systems have been developed which can effectively prevent cellular interference problems with ground-based wireless networks. Companies like GoGo, with their “Text & Talk” system, have already demonstrated the effectiveness of this equipment.

Based on the FCC’s ban rationale, the transformation of cellular services and equipment, and the availability of specialized equipment designed to offer inflight cellular services without ground network interference, I see no basis for the FCC to continue the ban, and expect it to be lifted next year.

In my recent column, Will airlines need to install “Phone Booths of Silence?” I explained that my concerns about cellular and/or WIFI capability on airlines is solely about voice communication. That’s a real concern to me, despite a recent FAA report that in a recent study foreign civil air authorities reported no passenger “air rage” or “flight attendant interference” having occurred due to passengers using cell phones while flying. The FAA report indicated there were few complaints about a passengers being too loud, and that inflight cell calls were short, averaging just a minute or two in length.

Okay, the passengers with no choice but to listen to others making phone calls didn’t assault the callers, but how happy were they having to endure the calls? On a flight I took in Europe last summer, passengers making cellular calls weren’t attacked, but certainly got icy stares.

Personally, I put little faith in the usefulness of the report for the US market. One of the reasons is the cost of airplane cellphone use in Europe. European airline cellular providers are charging between $3 and $4 per minute, so phone conversations aloft tend to be highly directed and specific, not the mindless chit-chat passengers fear most.

We used to have telephones on planes years ago. They looked like the “Trimline” phones from the ’60s. At first, their novelty induced air travelers to use them despite their cost, but eventually went unused because their per minute price was too high. After a few years they disappeared.

I believe it’s likely cellphone user costs will drop from current European levels, if permitted in the US, due to profit motivation. Cellular services could be a new lucrative profit center for the airlines and their cellular providers. The equipment needed for the service in planes isn’t inexpensive, requires maintenance, and has a useful life, after which it would have to be replaced. The airlines/cellular providers will have to charge a fee which will entice travelers to make more than a few short calls per flight, in order to make a reasonable profit from the service.

As the price drops, the number of calls and their length will increase, and so will the irritation of passengers who are unhappy witnesses of the calls.

I also question the usefulness of the survey because of the significant difference I’ve noticed in the cellphone habits of Europeans while traveling, compared to Americans. One only needs to compare the heavy cellphone use on Amtrak in the US’ Northeast Corridor to that on Eurostar and other European trains. There’s a world of difference. Frankly, I’ve found Europeans speak more quietly, far less often, and their calls have a significantly shorter duration.

I’m for adding cellular service and allowing everything but voice communication, just as it is now, for WIFI use on planes inflight.

If you feel the same way, I suggest you contact your favorite airline(s) and tell them how you feel. In the near future, I believe they will be the gate keepers, deciding what cellular services passengers may use.

The longest flights across the continental US last about 5½ hours. In my opinion, inflight voice communication isn’t necessary and shouldn’t be permitted. Messaging, email and other silent communication services are more than adequate.

  • KarlaKatz

    No matter what Tom Wheeler (new FCC Chairman) says publicly about cellphone use on planes (he opposes it), his former employment was that of a telecommunications lobbyist (Verizon). In fact, all the chatter about lifting the ban started just 14 days after he took the reins. DUH. He’s just returning a favor for his old buddies in the cellular industry; Another source of revenue for them!

  • Skeptic

    Verizon can still make money on inflight emails, text messaging and web browsing. I agree with Ned that Americans differ from Europeans in some significant ways: e.g., just compare the number of annual holidays and vacation days Europeans get (and take!) compared to us workaholics in the US. Too many Americans define themselves through their work, and only feel validated when they work non-stop, including during vacations. Constant phone time is part of our always-on culture. As I’ve said before, I do not want to be trapped in the middle seat with conversations 17″ (or less) from my ears on both sides, plus right behind me and in front of me. My Bose headphones are not that good at filtering out mid-range noise like conversations. Also, many people “talk” with their bodies while on the phone, waving their arms, shrugging their shoulders, and generally rocking around. With lighter and lighter seats, sitting among the young and the restless is starting to feel like I’m sharing an unbaffled waterbed with an elephant. I would rather my seatmates stay calm and focused on typing.

  • NedLevi

    I’m with you Skeptic. Our Bose headsets, and other brands are just not capable filtering out loud conversation, such as what typically happens when people speak via their cellphone.

    I’ll be sending in my letters to the new American Airlines, United and Delta soon, as those are the US domestic airlines I fly. I’ll be making my case with them to not permit voice communication on their planes, unless they provide a soundproof environment for each caller, and to require the use of earphones or headsets for listening to music, videos, movies, books, etc.

    The airlines already know that the majority of their passengers don’t want phone calls permitted, but without their passengers, especially their frequent fliers, and particularly their frequent fliers with status, sending in letters/emails supporting a ban, they might be tempted by the profit potential to permit the calls anyway, and not settle for charging only for the other cellular services.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • NedLevi

    Actually, the cellphone industry on land will, of course, participate in the profits, but it’s unlikely they’ll be a primary participant. Certainly initially, that will be true. Air travelers will not be permitted to connect to ground based cellular services. Planes on which cellular service will be permitted will have that service provided by equipment on the plane.

    Essentially a cell will be created by the equipment for everyone on the plane. From there all cellular service data, messaging, and voice, if permitted, will be transmitted through the planes system provided by companies like GoGo, to their ground facilities, now via direct transmission to ground antennas, and later via satellite.

    It is only at that point that the Verizons and AT&Ts will get in on the action, as calls and messages are transmitted to the user on the ground.

    While I think you’re probably right about Wheeler pushing this change, I believe this day was going to come soon, no matter who was at the FCC helm as the airlines are hot to provide cellular services, even if they don’t permit voice communication, due to the profits they could bring in. Cellular services such as SMS messaging, email, and general data use, can produce handsome profits for the airlines, even without phone calls.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • pauletteb

    Thank you, Ned! Charlie Leocha used that survey of European usage in his article in support of lifting.the ban. Talk about comparing apples to oranges. Few Europeans are as willing to share their personal information as we are. It’s ridiculous to think that the self-important blowhards who shout into their phones for hours in restaurants, airports, and other public places are suddenly going to become model citizens once airborne.

  • NedLevi

    My pleasure. Two people can read data differently. There’s a great deal of difference, in my opinion, between US and European travelers’ attitudes. You see it everywhere, and with regard to cellphone use, the difference in trains, restaurants, theaters, everywhere, is stark.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • DCTA

    I have more than once had to tell a client on a taxiing plane (having just landed) to “STOP. Please do not give me your credit card information now. Wait until you are in the terminal and can be in a more secure space. You have no idea who is sitting behind or next to you.” One of these was a (now retired) US Congressman!!! The best and brightest can also act like idiots!

    Aside from all that – I simply hate the idea of having to listen to cell conversations all the way over the Atlantic!!!! It will just make the entire experience of flying even more stressful!

  • NedLevi

    DCTA, thanks for the comment which I hope that travelers will really listen to, as it has a fantastic piece of advice. All too often I hear people on their cell phones publicly broadcast information they need to keep private, such as credit card information including the card’s security code, and intimate details of their life. There is little doubt that while in public, there are those who would take advantage of gleaning that kind of information for their personal use.

    I’m with you about having to listen to conversations across the Atlantic, or even flying for an hour or two.

    Fortunately, so far, US domestic airlines are heeding the message from their customers. Delta, JetBlue and United have already announced they will not be permitting voice communications on their planes.

    Thanks for your readership.