The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will consider letting passengers use cellular services on airplanes, breaking with a ban that has been in place for years.
At a meeting set for Dec. 12, the FCC will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to allow passengers to use mobile wireless services "via onboard airborne access systems," according to an agenda for the meeting that was released Thursday.
Both the FCC and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration have long restricted the use of both cellphones and other electronic devices in flight because of concerns about interference with navigation and other onboard electronics. The FAA recently eased regulations on using some electronic devices during takeoff and landing.
The FCC proposal would allow the use of mobile services that are now banned in flight. That would mean passengers could get online and potentially make voice calls over cellular services and not just the in-flight Wi-Fi provided on many flights today. They would access the cellular services via equipment on the plane rather than cellphone towers on the ground. Airlines could still restrict voice calls in flight, just as the major U.S. airlines now ban Internet voice calls via Wi-Fi.
"Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."
The plan wouldn't allow cellular use during takeoff and landing, but only above 10,000 feet, according to the FCC.
While the FAA has regulated electronics devices to protect aviation equipment, the FCC has banned the use of cellular radios in flight because they can harm cellular networks on the ground. If the FCC follows through with its plan, the FAA would still have to approve the small cellular base stations for installation on planes.
If the FCC commissioners agree on Dec. 12 to move the proposal forward, it will then go through periods for public comment and response and probably would not take effect for several months or more.