It didn’t take long for Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to face controversy.
On Thursday, the agency’s five-member commission is set to vote on whether to allow the public to comment on Wheeler’s idea to enable cellphone calls and Internet access on flights.
That may sound like a minor procedural motion. But the proposal has generated so much backlash that some commissioners are wavering on whether to even take that step.
Wheeler, who was sworn in last month, and another Democrat on the commission are expected to sign off on creating a public commenting period. But the other Democrat and the two Republican commissioners are hearing an outcry of protest from consumers and some lawmakers, and there is no guarantee that they would support opening the matter for review, FCC officials said.
In a statement Wednesday, Wheeler said that he understands “the consternation caused by the thought of your onboard seatmate disturbing the flight making phone calls. I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission.”
He added: “Technology has produced a new network reality recognized by governments and airlines around the world. Our responsibility is to recognize that new reality’s impact on our old rules.”
Analysts said falling short of the votes he needs on one of his first actions at the FCC would be an early setback for Wheeler, a former lobbyist for wireless and cable companies.
“There’s no way to paint a happy face on this, and at the end of the day I bet he wishes he could put it behind him,” said Jeffrey Silva, an analyst at Medley Global Advisors. “It won’t affect his political capital to pursue the big issues he has ahead, but in the near term this issue will hover over him because it is so unpopular among the mainstream.”
Wheeler’s proposal would give airlines permission to offer cellular voice and data services to passengers once a plane reaches an altitude of 10,000 feet. Such services are already being offered by airlines in Europe and Asia, which have installed special equipment that relays cellular signals to towers on the ground.
But many consumers have recoiled at the idea of sitting captive to the phone calls of neighboring passengers. FCC commissioners have received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails protesting the plan. A petition against the idea was launched on the White House Web site. Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced legislation earlier this week that would ban calls while in flight.
Senior FCC officials are well aware of the unpopularity of Wheeler’s proposal.
“There’s not a lot of love for the item,” a senior official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak openly about the matter. “It’s all being negotiated at the last minute, and it seems like the chairman’s office expects to get a majority, but that’s really up in the air right now.”
At a House oversight hearing Thursday morning, which will take place before the FCC vote, Wheeler and the other commissioners are expected to field tough questions about the proposal.
“Allowing cellphones on planes sounds like the premise of a new reality show: ‘Cage Fighting at 30,000 Feet,’ ” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommitee on communications and technology. “Like many Americans, I have serious concerns about this proposal, and I look forward to discussing this and more with all five FCC commissioners at our hearing tomorrow.”
Wheeler has said that the FCC at the very least should consider giving airlines the option of installing the technology that enables cellphone use in flight, and that ultimately it will be up to companies to decide whether passengers can make calls. The Federal Aviation Administration would also have to approve any equipment used to provide cellular services on planes.
OnAir, an in-flight wireless provider for British Airways, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, said people typically use their cellphones for e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter. Just 10 percent of usage is for voice calls, and the average length of each call is under two minutes, the London-based firm said.
Still some expect companies to jump on the proposal if the FCC ultimately approves the idea, said an aide to an FCC commissioner. “Once the FCC gets out of the way, you have to imagine airlines are immediately thinking of how to monetize it,” the aide said.