CEI Applauds FCC Efforts on Ending In-Flight Cell Phone Ban

Washington, DC, Dec. 12, 2013 – This afternoon, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held an Open Meeting. Among other issues, the FCC indicated it would proceed to repeal the current rule prohibiting cellular phone use onboard aircraft. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) applauded the work of the Commission in updating regulatory policy that fails to reflect technical realities.

The FCC seeks to allow airlines to install onboard cellular base stations, called picocells, to offer in-flight cellular band wireless service. The technology allows airlines to restrict certain functions, such as voice communications, while still allowing texting, email, and Web browsing. Such technology has been successfully deployed by major airlines around the world since 2008.

Marc Scribner, a research fellow at CEI, issued the following statement:

The FCC deserves praise for recognizing the flaws of the current rule, which has been in force since 1991. New technology is able to provide in-flight mobile wireless services without the risk of ground network interference that was the basis for the FCC’s prohibition of the use of transmitting 800 MHz cellular devices over two decades ago.

Unfortunately, some in Congress wish to deny air carriers and consumers the freedom to experiment with different in-flight wireless practices. These foolish legislative interventions are based on false pretexts and should be rejected. In addition, these members appear to believe it is an appropriate role of government to outlaw anything that could possibly annoy anybody. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testified during a House of Representatives committee hearing this morning, “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.”

Worse, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx today indicated the Department of Transportation is considering banning in-flight voice calls, claiming authority under the department’s consumer protection powers. However, such authority is restricted to preventing or remedying unfair or deceptive practices, unfair methods of competition, and discrimination. Any Department of Transportation attempt to ban cellular phone use under the guise of consumer protection as authorized by current law runs counter to legislative intent and is clearly arbitrary and capricious.

Decisions related to in-flight mobile wireless access should not be matters of public policy. It is absurd to believe that members of Congress and Department of Transportation bureaucrats are more responsive to airline passengers than the airlines who serve them. It would be a shame for the United States to fall behind the rest of the developed world because of the vulgar Luddism that afflicts some members of the political class.