Yapping seatmates may limit appeal of FCC allowing in-flight calls

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WASHINGTON — U.S. telecommunications regulators are poised to follow aviation officials in permitting wider use of smartphones by airline passengers — and not just for e-mail, spreadsheets and Angry Birds.

Voice calls via mobile phones would be allowed aboard planes under a Federal Communications Commission proposal announced Thursday. Even if the move wins approval, it would still need buy-in from airlines and passengers, who may be less tolerant of seatmates' conversations than of Internet surfing.

"On the plane, I don't think people will appreciate their neighbor yapping for hours and hours," Chetan Sharma, an independent wireless analyst based in Issaquah, Wash., said in an interview.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal would end a ban put in place because of potential interference to wireless networks on the ground. The change follows a Federal Aviation Administration move last month to loosen restrictions on passenger use of Wi-Fi connected electronic devices such as Amazon.com's Kindle and Apple's iPad.

The FCC said it would use its scheduled Dec. 12 meeting to consider the proposal, which would allow voice calls over mobile phones at altitudes above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) while prohibiting them as airplanes land and take off. The change would need another vote by the agency to take effect, and airlines could then choose whether to allow calling.

The move would "expand consumer access and choice for in- flight mobile broadband," Wheeler said in a statement. "Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules."

Shares of airborne connectivity companies Gogo Inc. and Boingo Wireless Inc. climbed in trading Thursday. Gogo shares jumped 7.5 percent to $29.70 in New York, while Boingo shares rose 9 percent to $6.78.

The FCC previously considered allowing airborne mobile- phone use and abandoned the effort in 2007, saying it didn't have enough technical information to lift the restriction in force since the 1990s.

In its notice Thursday, the agency said it wants to give airlines freedom to let passengers connect "via onboard airborne access systems." The equipment airliners would use for in-flight calls would need approval from aviation authorities, Justin Cole, an FCC spokesman, said in an interview.

Airlines need to show the FAA they can operate safely with passengers' devices turned on, and three that have done so are Delta Air Lines, United Continental Holdings and US Airways Group. The three don't allow voice calls over their onboard Wi-Fi systems to avoid passenger annoyance.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which represents makers of smartphones and tablet computers, praised the FCC proposal as a "pro-consumer" move. Even so, the Arlington, Va.-based group said in a statement, any rules change "should not negate general common courtesies."

"Engaging in phone conversations in flight may prove technically feasible but many may find it socially undesirable," the CEA said.

Gogo, which provides Wi-Fi service for partners including Delta, United, and US Airways, doesn't allow voice calls over data links at its airline customers' request, Steve Nolan, a spokesman, said in an interview.

"There's some potential social backlash to allowing passengers to talk loudly in a public environment," Nolan said.

Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group, had no comment on Wheeler's proposal, Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

In comments submitted to the FCC last year, Delta said that a survey of its customers found that 64 percent thought the ability to make onboard calls would have a negative impact on the flight experience. The carrier said then its position is that while it supports wider electronic device use in-flight, voice calls should be limited to the ground.

Representatives of cabin personnel Thursday objected to the FCC proposal as adding a potential disruption to the cabin environment.

"Passengers overwhelmingly reject cell phone use in the aircraft cabin," the Association of Flight Attendants, a union, said in an e-mailed statement. "The FCC should not proceed with this proposal."

Under its policy announced Oct. 31, the FAA initially will allow smartphones, tablet computers and MP3 players to stay on throughout flights, including during takeoff and landing phases, if they're set to so-called airplane mode, which turns off cellular connections.

Users will be able to read or listen to content already on their devices. To surf the Web, download content or play online games at altitudes below 10,000 feet, their flight will have to be equipped with a Wi-Fi service designed to work during those phases. Heavier devices will have to be stowed at those times.

The FAA currently prohibits use of personal electronic devices while a plane is below 10,000 feet, with the exception of portable recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electric shavers. The restrictions are intended to prevent interference with flight controls, radios and navigation equipment.

Wheeler since taking office at the FCC Nov. 4 has shown he is prepared to act on several fronts, including rules for the technological changes sweeping telephone service, for airwaves auctions to feed the growing number of smartphones — and for in-flight calling, said Jeffrey Silva, a Washington-based analyst for Medley Global Advisors LLC.

"He's revving the engine, ready for take-off," Silva said in an e-mail.