WASHINGTON - A divided Federal Communications Commission agreed Thursday to collect public comment on lifting a 22-year ban against cellular service on planes, but the Department of Transportation will consider its own ban on voice calls, texts or data.
The FCC voted 3 to 2 Thursday to collect public comment on a proposal to lift the ban against cellular service on planes, even as the chairman said he hopes to lift the ban in 2014.
The secretary of Transportation said his department will consider its own cellular rule, which could continue the ban, at least on voice calls aboard flights.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said new technology that allows planes to carry essentially their own cell towers made the 1991 ban obsolete, because it was adopted to prevent interference with ground-based communication.
The FCC proposal would allow cellular service so long as planes carry equipment to provide the service, but that can block voice calls, allowing text and data service.
"Nothing will be different on your flight tomorrow," Wheeler said. "We're just seeking comments on the proposal."
At a House hearing earlier Thursday, Wheeler was asked whether his goal is to lift the ban during 2014. "Strongly yes," he said.
"This is the responsible thing to do," he told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications. "Where the rationale for the rule doesn't exist, the rule shouldn't exist."
The reason cellular service might be more tempting for travelers than wi-fi service - even without calls - is that cell service on overseas flights is typically cheaper than wi-fi service that is allowed in the USA.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted for accepting public comment, but she opposes the proposal, saying she takes a lot of flights and is often banished to a middle seat in the back row where a neighbor's call would be even more uncomfortable.
"This commission does not need to add to that burden," she said.
Even if the FCC lifts its ban, the DOT and Federal Aviation Administration and airlines would have to decide whether to allow cellular service on planes.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he has heard concerns raised by travelers, flight attendants, airlines and lawmakers troubled about voice calls on flights. The department will determine whether allowing calls is fair to consumers and whether a ban on in-flight calls is warranted, he said.
"I am concerned as well," Foxx said. "As part of that process, USDOT will give stakeholders and the public significant opportunity to comment."
Voice calls have been allowed for years on airlines in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The prospect remains contentious in the USA, where flight attendants - and a majority of Americans - are strongly opposed to voice calls.
Two national polls released Wednesday, from the Associated Press and Quinnipiac University, each found 59% opposed voice calls and 30% supported them.
The chairman of the House transportation committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced legislation this week that would prevent voice calls on planes. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced legislation Thursday that would block voice calls on planes, while allowing texts and data.
"This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their inner-most thoughts," Alexander said.