The nation’s top telecom regulator will propose allowing passengers to make cell phone calls and use their data plans while on an airplane, officials said Thursday.
The proposed rule change by the Federal Communications Commission would allow phone use once a plane reaches 10,000 feet. Restrictions would still be in place during takeoffs and landings.
The agency’s commission is set to discuss the proposal in their upcoming December meeting. The new rule has the backing of Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s new chairman, who was sworn in just weeks ago.
“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”
Wheeler, a Democrat, would need the support of the majority of the five-member commission, which has three Democrats and two Republicans.
The commission could vote on the matter after a public commenting period. The proposal does not need congressional approval.
The FCC made a similar proposal in 2004, but it was dropped three years later in the face of opposition from flight attendants and other groups worried about the distractions of constantly ringing phones and people talking on their devices while others are trying to sleep.
The new guidelines would let airlines install special equipment to relay wireless signals from the plane to the ground, likely by way of a satellite connection. A similar system already exists in Europe. Last week, the European Commission approved passengers’ use of 3G and 4G data from airplanes as well.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the use of all personal electronics below 10,000 feet so long as the devices remained on "airplane mode." In a September report, the agency's special task force on the issue suggested that advances in cell phone technology should prompt the FCC to reconsider its ban on phone calls above 10,000 feet.
“This raises the possibility that it may be appropriate for the FCC to again review its policies relative to cell phone use on planes, not only for international flights, but for U.S. domestic flights as well,” the report said.