Why cell phones are still grounded

It's because phones interfere with airplane electronics, right? Wrong.

How many times have you heard this?

"At this time, all electronic devices, including cell phones and two-way pagers, must be turned off and put away. After takeoff, I'll let you know when you may use approved electronic portable devices."

Of course, those "approved electronic portable devices" won't include your cell phone, not until after you land.

The reason is that cell phones interfere with the airplane's electronics, right?

Well, no, actually. The risk posed by cell phones to airplane equipment is unknown, and will remain unknown for as long as possible.

Phones are banned for two official reasons:

  1. Cell phones "might" interfere with the avionics (aviation electronics) of some airplanes.
  2. Cell phones aloft "might" cause problems with cell tower systems on the ground.

Both of these risks are easily tested, yet somehow neither the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) nor the Federal Communications Commission has been able to get a definitive answer in the past 20 years as to whether phone calls in flight cause these suspected problems. (The FAA is responsible for the flight safety portion of all this, and the FCC is responsible for the cell tower part.)

The government's dirty little secret is that it cultivates uncertainty about the effects of phones in airplanes as a way to maintain the existing ban without having to confront the expense and inconvenience to airlines and wireless carriers of allowing them.

Why airlines want the ban

The airlines fear "crowd control" problems if cell phones are allowed in flights. They believe cell phone calls might promote rude behavior and conflict between passengers, which flight attendants would have to deal with. The airlines also benefit in general from passengers remaining ignorant about what's happening on the ground during flights, including personal problems, terrorist attacks, plane crashes and other information that might upset passengers.

One way to deal with callers bothering noncallers would be to designate sections of each flight where calling is allowed -- like a "smoking section." But the ban is easier.

Also: If real testing were done, and the nature of the problem fully understood, it would become obvious that airplanes could be designed or retrofitted with shielding and communications systems that would enable safe calling through all phases of flight. But that would cost money. The ban is cheaper.

However, the airlines know that some kind of plane-to-ground communication is coming, and they want to profit from it. Simply allowing passengers to use their own cell phones in flight would leave the airlines out of the profit-taking. Airlines would prefer that phones be banned while they come up with new ways to charge for communication, such as the coming wave of Wi-Fi access. Meanwhile, the ban is potentially more profitable.

Why carriers want the ban

Cell phone and tower designs are based on the assumption that at any given time, only a few cell towers will be close to any specific phone. So any given tower will use different channels than those used by other towers closest to it, but will use the same channels as towers farther away. However, when a phone is used in an airplane, it might have roughly equal access to two or more towers that use the same channels, which confuses the carriers' computer systems. This situation might result in interrupted calls, reduced system capacity and other problems.

Of course, this could be fixed in any number of ways, including an overhaul of the software used to manage calls between towers, but the fix would cost money. The ban is cheaper.

Why the government wants the ban

Cell phones and other electronics vary in how much they could interfere with avionics. If it's determined that some devices do cause problems, all gadgets would have to do extra certification testing, which the government doesn't want to spend the money to do. The ban is cheaper.

Also: No FCC or FAA chairman wants to sign off a change in the rules because if a cell phone does cause either an airplane crash or a cell tower computer system crash, they don't want to be blamed. Keeping the ban is the safe decision for the politically ambitious. The ban is easier.

What are the facts?

DVD players, laptops, portable game machines, CD players, MP3 players all radiate energy, and theoretically could cause interferences with GPS systems, communications equipment and the airplane's interaction with distant navigational systems.

U.S. airlines alone carry on average some 2 million passengers per day. If just 1% of these passengers accidentally or deliberately leaves their cell phones on, that means some 20,000 cell phones remain on during flights every single day. Despite this, no crash has ever been definitively attributed to cell phone or gadget interference.

Many headsets used by private pilots come with jacks for using them with cell phones. The manufacturers say they're for use on the ground only. But many private pilots use them in the air without incident.

Cell phones are used in airplanes every day, and no crash has ever been definitively attributed to cell phone or gadget interference.

The TV show MythBusters "busted" as a myth the conventional wisdom that phones interfere with avionics.

However, a Carnegie Mellon University study conducted some four years ago found that portable electronics interfere with airplane systems -- especially GPS -- even more than previously feared.

The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), a nonprofit corporation that advises the FAA, studying the effect of phones on avionics. The RTCA is also looking at technologies that would minimize any disruption, including the use of ultrawideband frequencies and extremely low-power cellular phone systems. They're predicting a definitive answer to all this, but don't hold your breath.

Just this week, the FCC officially dropped its inquiry into lifting an existing ban on using cell phones during commercial flights. The FCC said after the ruling that "given the lack of technical information in the record upon which we may base a decision, we have determined at this time that this proceeding should be terminated."

So the ban remains in place because the government can't seem to come up with definitive answers.

But does that even matter? Interference problems could be overcome with well-understood techniques of shielding, reprogramming and other technology designed to facilitate safe calls.

(When I say "we," I mean we Americans. In Europe, they're working on both legalizing and facilitating calls on airplanes.)

What's wrong with the ban?

The government's reasoning for banning cell phones in airplanes is weak, lame and evasive.

Don't buy the government's bull about electronic interference. The truth is that the ban is cheaper and easier for airlines, carriers and the government than mustering the political will and leadership to make in-flight cell calls a reality.

Here's another problem with the government's abdication of responsibility on this question: Either phones and other gadgets can crash airplanes or they can't. If they can, then we've got a serious problem on our hands, and airplanes need to be upgraded to protect the public safety.

What's to stop terrorists from testing various gadgets, finding the ones with the highest levels of interferences, then turning on dozens of them at some crucial phase of flight, such as during a landing in bad weather?

If gadgets can't crash planes, then the ban is costing billions of hours per year of lost productivity by business people who want to work in flight.

For the government to avoid knowing the answer is incredibly irresponsible.

Clearly, using cell phones is a public benefit, not to mention a business benefit. Shouldn't the airlines and the regulatory agencies figure out how to make that happen?

We can put a man on the moon -- and let him chat with his friends in Houston for the whole trip. Surely, we can solve the problems associated with in-flight cell calls.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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