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FCC To Revisit Decades-Old Ban on In-Flight Cell Calling

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Ian Bush Ian Bush
Ian Bush is an anchor, reporter, news editor, and technology editor&nb...
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By technology editor Ian Bush

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Federal Communications Commission today took the first step forward in a plan that would allow cell phone calls on airliners.

In a narrow 3-2 vote, the FCC decided to open public comment on the proposal. But don’t break out the earplugs just yet: there are several moves afoot to block the lifting of the ban — including a bill introduced by a Pennsylvania congressman.

“I’m the last person in the world who wants to listen to someone talking to me while I’m flying across the country,” says FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

But, Wheeler notes, his agency is “not the Federal ‘Courtesy’ Commission”; its role is to examine innovations, like those which have killed concerns of cell phone interference in midair.

“Where there is new onboard technology that eliminates that potential for interference, then there is no need for an interference rule,” he told a Congressional panel.  “This is the responsible thing to do, where the the rationale for a rule doesn’t exist, the rule shouldn’t exist.  We are the expert technical agency, and new technology removes the technical justification for this rule.”

If the FCC decides to lift the ban, it would then be up to each airline to decide for itself whether to allow in-flight phone use. Several commissioners spoke of concern that lifting the ban could jeopardize passenger and crew safety and add to the burden of air travelers.

Republican Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) says whoever makes the rule, he doesn’t want to hear it.

“I think allowing people to use their cell phones to communicate by voice causes a lot of chaos, a lot of noise,” he says.

Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee,  tells Fox Business Network that a bill he has introduced would ban airlines from permitting voice calls, but wouldn’t prohibit texting or other silent forms of communication.

But Wheeler says without a change in the 22-year-old ban, passengers couldn’t use their mobile networks for those silent forms of communication with the world outside the cabin.

“For most of the traveling public, they want to have a quiet and uneventful experience,” Shuster says.

The Department of Transportation is considering its own ban on in-flight calls.  Delta is pledging to keep the prohibition on its planes.

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