A Closer Look at the FCC’s Airborne Cell Phone NPRM

If you've read the news reports on the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (not yet released) for providing airlines with the ability to permit passengers to use mobile wireless devices on board aircraft, you may have gotten the impression that passengers would be able to use their cell phones the same way the do on the ground, to directly access wireless base stations.

That is not the case, as a recent FCC FAQ on “Increasing Consumer Access to In-Flight Mobile Wireless Services explains. “The proposed rules would make clear that there is no right to operate cell phones on planes as a default. If an airline takes affirmative steps, and complies with applicable FCC and FAA rules, they would be permitted to operate an airborne access system that would allow them to provide the service and give them a greater degree of control over cell phones than exists today.”

The key words here are “airborne access system”. Cell phones in aircraft would not be communicating directly with cellular networks on the ground, but rather through a micro-cell installed on the plane, which would be under control of the captain and the air carrier. All communications would take place through this “Airborne Access System,” similar to the way passengers are able to connect to a Wi-Fi system in the plane that connects to the Internet using either Gogo's terrestrial base stations or one of the satellite Internet systems available.

I would expect the airlines offering this service to use a commercial version of the Wireless Network Extenders from Verizon and AT&T to connect to the Internet for in-flight Wi-Fi to provide the cellular service. This would mean a large latency in the case of satellite connections or limited bandwidth and poor voice quality for a terrestrial solution. In short, I don't think anyone will want to use it for long conversations. And as the connection will be through the plane’s communications systems, there will likely be additional charges associated with the use of the service, just as there is now for Wi-Fi access.

The FAQ notes, “As a default, under the FCC’s proposal, the use of cell phones on flights would continue to be prohibited. Airlines, consistent with FAA rules, will ultimately decide whether to offer airline passengers these services--not the FCC--and how best to manage it, including whether to enable voice services.”

It will be interesting to see how this develops. I've found Wi-Fi on planes to be useful--with the Gogo terrestrial service on Delta much more so than the satellite-based service on Southwest; however, I'm not sure I'll turn on my cell phone on a plane, even if it is allowed.

You can find more information in the FCC's FAQ: Increasing Consumer Access to In-Flight Mobile Wireless Services.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.