Yes, loud cellphone users are the worst. But why is it the FCC’s job to police them?

November 25, 2013

(dionhinchcliffe)

Last week's news that the government will soon think about allowing cellphone use on planes caused a torrent of negative feedback. Nobody wants airplanes to turn into the soup of noise that too often afflicts Amtrak riders. So how can the head of the agency that proposed the idea sleep at night, knowing he's about to condemn millions of air travelers to a future of jabbering airborne loudmouths?

The backlash has been swift and strong. Critics include the flight attendants' union and the chair of a powerful House subcommittee on technology.

"Like many Americans, when I heard the news that the FCC was considering allowing cell phone calls on commercial flights, I was concerned to say the least," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

The chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, admits that being trapped in a metal tube for hours while some idiot's voice rattles up and down the cabin might not sound like fun.

"We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes," Wheeler said in a statement last week. "I feel that way myself."

Overturning the ban doesn't seem to make much sense in that light. But those who would keep it in place risk conflating two battles that should rightfully be separated. The first involves winning the right to use your phone at all during a flight. The second is a discussion about the social contract you make with your fellow passengers when you buy a plane ticket.

Here's why the former is important. If the FCC approves the rule change, air travelers won't just be allowed to make phone calls — they'll also be allowed to use the 3G and 4G data services that are tied to their device plans. That means a big change from the current state of affairs, in which to get in-flight Internet you have to sign up with a separate service. As I've explained before, letting customers use their own wireless plans on airplanes means that the cellular companies may soon be expected to compete with Gogo and Row44. That's good for fliers.

As for the second debate — let's step back a minute and describe what's going on here. The reason why we have the ban on in-flight cellular use at all is because of an outdated worry about the threat posed by wireless devices to aircraft avionics. The FCC's proposal would simply acknowledge what consumers have long asked of another agency, the Federal Aviation Administration: That there's actually no technological reason to think that your cellphone will crash the plane.

If you lobby on the one hand for allowing portable electronic use on flights because it's perfectly safe but then argue that the FCC should not update its rules to reflect that finding, that's a problematic inconsistency. If your argument against the FCC rule change is that it'll let people chatter away in a public setting, you're asking a boring, technical (and wrong) regulation to enforce your social norms for you.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | November 25, 2013