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WASHINGTON (Reuters) Hopes and worries that regulators will soon end
the ban on using wireless phones during U.S. commercial flights are
likely at least a year or two early, government officials and analysts
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission Wednesday plans to seek
public comment on whether to ease or lift its prohibition on the use
of wireless phones and two-way communications devices such as
Blackberrys while in the air.
FCC officials stressed that it could take at least a year to lift the
agency's ban. And there still is a prohibition by the Federal Aviation
Administration, which could take another year to ease.
The agencies are moving cautiously because of concerns the
communications would interfere with operating a plane and could
overwhelm wireless systems on the ground. There are also questions
about whether it's technically feasible to support thousands of calls
from the air.
There are almost 173 million wireless phone subscribers, according to
"We hope to complete our work as expeditiously as possible, but
anything we do here at the FCC doesn't alter the rules at the FAA,"
FCC spokeswoman Lauren Patrich said.
To guard aircraft safety, the FAA forbids the cabin use of devices
that intentionally emit radio waves, like wireless phones and
computers that can communicate with each other.
A technical advisory group is to report back next year on whether
these restrictions should be changed, FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto
Other electronic devices, like music players and standard laptops,
which can unintentionally cause interference, are permitted once the
aircraft rises above 10,000 feet. Usually, flight attendants tell
passengers once the plane reaches that altitude and those devices can
Gearing up for competition
While the bans are debated, the FCC plans to push rules Wednesday
aimed at boosting competition for air-to-ground telephone and
high-speed Internet services with frequencies now used by phones
embedded in plane seats, agency officials said.
A Verizon Communications unit is the major provider of air-to-ground
telephones on U.S. commercial flights. Others bowed out over the last
few years because consumers, in part, balked at the high prices.
Verizon's Airfone service typically costs $3.99 a minute plus a $3.99
connection fee per domestic voice call. It also offers some data
services for a fee.
Airlines, rival wireless companies and aircraft maker Boeing are
salivating at the prospect of more in-flight communications services,
including high-speed Internet, or broadband, to meet travelers'
The additional fees the airlines and providers could charge for those
services would be a boon to the ailing airline industry, which is
enduring fare wars and high fuel prices.
"Today the high cost of wireless when flying has kept the users low,"
telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan said. "But once the cost drops
or once you can use your own phone on board, the quiet air cabin may
be a thing of the past."
Kagan, who does a lot of traveling, said he loves and hates the idea
of making and receiving calls during a flight.
"We should be very careful before opening this up," he said. "Just
think how annoying it is to hear the person behind you shouting to his
neighbor when you are trying to work or read or sleep."
Boeing and a private company, AirCell, have urged the FCC to auction
two air-to-ground wireless licenses and limit bidders to winning only
one to ensure competition. The airlines want the FCC to ensure enough
spectrum is sold so that a provider can meet the demand for airborne
"Although the demand for voice services has declined over the past few
years, the demand for data services continues to increase,"
Continental Airlines told the FCC in September.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited.
Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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