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FCC to weigh in-flight cellphone use

by New York Times News Service on November 22, 2013 10:35 AM

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday that it would consider changing its rules to permit the use of cellphones and other wireless-data devices during airline flights.

The change, which was placed on the agenda for the commission’s Dec. 12 meeting, would still be months away, requiring a public comment period of weeks and a final draft of the rules. But it would constitute a major shift for airline passengers.

The use of cellphones during flights has been vigorously opposed by many passengers and by flight attendants, although some airlines in Asia and Europe already offer cell service.

An FCC official said U.S. airlines would be given the option of outfitting their planes with equipment that would allow the use of cellphones above 10,000 feet.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the rules, if adopted, would “expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband,” meaning the commission thinks both Wi-Fi and wireless cellphone data plans could be used.

A swift negative reaction came from the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing airline workers.

“Flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment,” the union said in a statement. “Any situation that is loud, divisive and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe.”

The FCC measure would allow voice calls through the use of what is called a picocell, a small base station that would be installed on a plane, collect all cellphone activity during the flight and send it down to the ground.

Airlines in the United States already have the ability to allow phone calls using voice connections over Wi-Fi networks.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration changed the rules to permit airlines to allow the use of electronics during takeoff and landing, and passengers generally rejoiced at the ability to be able to read an e-book or play a game on their tablet or smartphone.

But sitting next to someone who is chatting away for hours could quickly outweigh the common complaint of sitting next to a crying baby.

“Really bummed to hear that news,” wrote Randi Zuckerberg, author of the book “Dot Complicated” (and sister of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook). “Airplanes were the last socially acceptable place to require people to unplug.”

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