End the internet blackout on airplanes

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Article Highlights

  • Our cell phones aren’t just cell phones anymore, they are connected computers.

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  • Thus, the practical effect of the FCC’s rule goes beyond banning talk to creating a de facto Internet blackout zone on airplanes.

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  • But the naysayers aren’t likely to have their way this time around for a simple reason: Smartphones.

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The Federal Communications Commission will decide today (Dec. 12) whether to reconsider its rules prohibiting cell phone use on airplanes.  If it votes to move ahead, the ban could be lifted before the end of 2014.  But there is no guarantee.  The Commission took off on a similar course a decade ago, but found itself facing massive political headwinds. The ban stayed in place.

The result this time is likely to be different, and for good reason:  Our cell phones aren’t just cell phones anymore, they are connected computers.  Thus, the practical effect of the FCC’s rule goes beyond banning talk to creating a de facto Internet blackout zone on airplanes.  

To be clear, the FCC has nothing to do with airline safety. Responsibility for assuring planes don’t fall from the sky or land at the wrong airports rests with the Federal Aviation Administration, which recently confirmed that laptops and smart phones don’t pose a safety hazard and lifted its “power off” rule for takeoffs and landings.  I say “confirmed” because this is something all of us knew from personal experience, having occasionally forgotten to power down a cell phone or computer ourselves, and noted the absence of ill effects; but the FAA also pointed to evidence from Europe and the Middle East, where cell phone use on planes has been allowed for years.
The FCC is concerned with the more mundane question of whether airborne cell phone use could disrupt networks on the ground, for example by increasing the number of dropped calls. The Commission first considered that question back in 1991, and decided that the first-generation cell phone networks then in use were not up to the task handling of calls from cell phones travelling at 600 miles per hour at 30,000 feet without disrupting traffic for everyone else.

Those concerns melted away with the introduction of digital networks, and in 2004 the FCC proposed ending the ban. The result was anticlimactic:  In 2007, after a two-year investigation,it issued a terse two-page order concluding that “insufficient technical information” made action “premature.” But that finding is tough to square with what the Commission staff had already been saying in public.  In a 2005 letter to Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) for example, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau wrote that “Since 1991, advances in technology appear to address the concerns of interference to terrestrial systems that originally caused the Commission to adopt the ban.”

So why did the Commission leave the ban in place?  Perhaps because of the more than 8,000 public comments it received, a large proportion of which read something like this 2006 email from a Ms. Sara Carver (and still available on the Commission’s web site):  “PLEASE PLEASE do NOT allow cell phone  use of any kind on any airlines.  I have to fly often and do not wish to hear everyone talking…. No one is so important that they need to be in contact with other humans via a cell phone while flying.”  In short, the Commission bowed to political pressure to become, in effect, a regulator of cell phone courtesy on airplanes.

Much of the initial reaction this time around has been similar. Polls show airline passengers don’t like the idea of sitting next to someone chatting away on a cell phone; the flight attendants’ union has announced its opposition; even a U.S. Senator, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander (R), has weighed in, threatening legislation to keep the ban in place no matter what the FCC decides.  

But the naysayers aren’t likely to have their way this time around for a simple reason:  Smartphones.

In the last decade, technology has transformed the devices we still sometimes refer to as “cell phones” into mobile computers with high speed broadband connections.  If you were one of the 62 percent of Americans who had a cell phone in 2004 (38 percent did not), the odds were you only used it for one thing:  Talking. Back then, 3G wireless networks were still on the drawing board, only a third of cell phones users had data connections, and the main applications were rudimentary text messaging and email.  Blackberry’s first converged pager-cell phone combination had been introduced in 2003, and it didn’t do web browsing.  The first really practical web browser-cell phone combination – the Apple iPhone – wasn’t introduced until June 2007, two months after the FCC closed its investigation.

Needless to say, things have changed.  Today’s 4G LTE networks cover 90 percent of the U.S. population, delivering live streaming video over devices no one in 2004 could have imagined.  Well over half of Americans have smart phones, and nearly all of us use some form of mobile data.  In 2013, unlike in 2004, we carry the Internet with us everywhere we go – except on airplanes.  And while it is true that some flights – about 40 percent – offer limited wi-fi access, it is expensive and slow, and surveys show most passengers don’t like it and don’t use it.  By opening the market to competition from modern technology, the FCC would end the de facto airborne broadband blackout and allow us to shop, bank, Tweet, post and do all the other things we have come to value from the mobile Internet.

Still worried about those annoying voice calls?  Fair enough.  But keep two things in mind.  First, mobile voice usage is declining at a double-digit rate, as people replace phone calls with texting and data.  That’s likely to be true in spades on airplanes, where noise and privacy concerns will make voice calls a poor alternative to sending an email.  Second, the FCC isn’t considering mandating cell phone use, merely lifting the ban.  That will leave the issue up to airlines and passengers, who can surely be counted on to work the rest out for themselves, without the intervention of a “Federal Courtesy Commission.”

Eisenach is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of its Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy.

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