Such a move may cause some airline passengers to shriek and howl. While some would love the ability to make cell phone calls during a flight, others are concerned that -- considering the small and enclosed space of an airliner -- allowing such calls would make other passengers a captive audience to what seems to be an overly loud conversation.
An unnamed FCC official said that cell phone use would continue to be restricted during the critical takeoff and landing portions of a flight. However, once a flight reaches 10,000 -- assuming this goes through -- passengers would be able to make airborne phone calls and use cellular data (as opposed to in-flight WiFi).
The FCC plans to discuss the proposal at its Dec. 12 meeting. If approved, airlines would then have to go-ahead to -- if they so desire -- implement the proposal, on their own.
The FAA said in October that it would allow passengers to use mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones as long as their wireless radios were disabled (AKA "flight mode"). The FAA emphasized that despite the relaxation of the rules, cell phones "cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations."
Don't expect a quick change to the rules. The proposal will be made via a "Notice of Proposed Rule Making," in which the FCC will invite comments on the idea before making a final decision. This isn't the first time such a change has been proposed, and when the FCC made a similar proposal in 2004, it dropped the idea in 2007 after a flood of opposition.
That was a long time ago, though, and that 2007 date could be a key. It wasn't until June 29, 2007 that the first iPhone was released to retail. Nowadays, with so many people using smartphones, a ban on their use is considered by many to be heresy.
The FCC has banned in-flight calls since 1991. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said,
Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.It's clear from the terminology "outdated and restrictive" where Wheeler stands on the issue.
It's also clear, without asking, where the cell phone industry stands on it, as well.