Later today, the Federal Communications Commission is going to vote on whether to strike a rule banning the use of cellular services on airplanes. When the idea was first announced, it drew immediate criticism from people who worried that flights were soon going to be filled with chatty passengers. But here's one way the FCC could find a way through the turbulence.
In a hearing before a House subcommittee Thursday, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler implied that airlines might be allowed to unilaterally block phone calls from being made in midair. Such an approach would put the responsibility of banning calls on individual companies and spare the FCC from weighing in on air courtesy.
Wheeler said he had spoken with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx Thursday morning to discuss a rule clarifying the issue of in-flight calls.
Asked by lawmakers whether airlines would be required to complete calls placed at cruising altitude, Wheeler referred to the FCC's network neutrality rules, which exempts planes — alongside other "premises" like bookstores and coffee shops — from treating all Internet traffic equally.
"For premises owners, which includes airlines, there is the ability to pick and choose exactly what comes over," Wheeler said.
Giving air carriers the choice would be consistent with Wheeler's previous attempts to distance himself from the public uproar.
"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," Wheeler said in a statement Wednesday. "But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission."
Wheeler reiterated Thursday that the FCC was a technical agency only — meaning that if a rule no longer made sense because the technology no longer poses a danger to safety, then it's the organization's job to revise it.
All this could be great news for passengers fearful for the sanctity of their airspace. But it also raises more questions about Wheeler's stance on an open Internet. Last month, Wheeler suggested he would be open to tiered pricing tactics in the Internet industry that critics say would create a pay-for-play Internet. The FCC is currently awaiting a court decision that could overturn the net neutrality regulations.