Dear FCC and airlines: Please do not let me make phone calls on a plane

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

With the news that the FCC is considering lifting the ban on cell phone use in-flight came a rather strong response from consumers (thus you can derive the direction that conversation has taken since then). On the official FCC blog, acting chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Roger Sherman wrote an empathetic message to fend off the wolves that have been barking at the FCC since it was reported we might be subject to a loud, annoying, one-sided phone conversations.

Of course, like any civil servant that resides inside the DC beltway, Mr. Sherman then proceeded to deflect and basically blame someone else by announcing that should the FCC adopt the proposed policy, it would be “the airlines that have the ultimate say as to whether and how to provide additional wireless services.” Allow me to clue you into a certain reality Mr. Sherman, the FCC could, at its discretion, adopt a policy that allowed expanded use of wireless services, including texting, expanded Wi-Fi or even cellular data, but discouraged (I won’t say ban simply because we are suffering from a state of over-regulation already) voice services.

Mr. Sherman goes on to add, “If an airline chooses to provide this service, it could improve access to wireless data services while flying, facilitate the use of in-flight texting, or even bring competition – and potentially lower prices – to a new market for in-flight broadband.”

It's not just a technical problem

With all the technological advances over the years, commercial air-to-ground communication has never really taken off. The main reason is cost. No one is very keen on paying $5 to $10 per minute for a phone call. Those are not just arbitrary fees either, maintaining a circuit switched call from 30,000+ feet, to ground stations that must hand off not only the signal, but also hand-off the back-haul trunks that carry the call, is expensive and requires dedicated facilities to manage such traffic.

Even if we get to a viable VoIP solution for air-to-ground voice communications, unless the price comes down, way down, the demand for such services will be pretty much zero. I was recently on a flight out of the Middle East into Paris on Etihad Airlines. I was seated in business class and amongst us passengers sitting in comfort, we each had access to a phone for voice calls for a cool $10 per minute. Between the business and first class cabins, not one call was made during the 7-hour flight. If the price were $1 per minute you might see some activity, but odds are in my favor if I bet that the service would still not see any use.

Data is where it is at

Where we are seeing progress however is in data. Data is immeasurably easier than voice in air-to-ground because it is IP based. You do not need “always-on” circuits to carry the connection. If something drops out, the client sends it again if needed. Packet loss is flexible, how many times have you not fully populated a web-page? It could be long server response, or just part of the package got dropped.

Gogo in-flight internet has provided some decent packages for fliers of all types, internet that can be used as long as that aircraft has the on-board Wi-Fi to take advantage of the service. Frequent fliers that are production power-houses can get unlimited access for only $50 per month.  That does not sound like a lot, but you might need to be on a plane using the internet at least 10 hours a week to make it worthwhile. Could such people also make a business case to have access to voice services? Perhaps, but if you are on a plane and have access to the internet, in an age of smartphones, laptops and instant messaging, there is little that cannot be accomplished without a voice call.

Conversations on a plane are simply loud

I am not a power traveler, in the business sense. I am not on the road and in the air every week, but I do travel several times a year, mostly transcontinental flights in the US. Many times, I have been happy to meet people on the plane and strike up a conversation about whatever happens to be the news of the day. As quiet as planes have gotten, it is still pretty loud. Simple two-way conversations between passengers have a fairly high-volume.

Imagine that one-sided conversation phone call in the seat next to you, “WHAT??!! SAY THAT AGAIN! CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW??!! OF COURSE I DO!! CAN YOU PICK ME UP??!! WHAT??!! SAY THAT AGAIN! HUH??!! LET ME CALL YOU RIGHT BACK TO GET A BETTER CONNECTION!!” Ugh.  That is what it sounded like back in the days of GTE Airfone.  Technical issues aside, loud conversations, whether on a cell phone or not is simply annoying.

Mr. Sherman at the FCC assures us however, “If – and only if – an airline decides to allow passengers to do so, would in-flight calls be permitted.” He goes on to say, “If passengers want increased options for wireless data for the purpose of email, tweeting, texting, web browsing – but not making voice calls – an airline can install the technology and manage the service to meet the needs of its passengers.”

With rationalizations like this, the airlines will make the better choice

That technology does indeed exist Mr. Sherman, it is called Wi-Fi. Nearly every modern phone has connectivity to use it, as does every tablet and every recent laptop computer. Hooked to Wi-Fi, a smartphone has the ability to do everything it can do when hooked to a cellular network (including voice calls in some instances), except maybe texting. Voice calls over Wi-Fi can easily be disabled because services like Gogo do not allow the connection on its network that would enable services like Skype to make such calls.

Finally, Mr. Sherman notes that this review of policy is simply the beginning, not the end. I am not saying that allowing voice calls is not the end either, indeed, it will be just the beginning, the beginning of a lot of things, customer complaints, upset users that cannot get a connection, add whatever you want to the list. Given the rationalizations offered by the FCC, we are indeed probably much better off having the airlines make these decisions, and even if the decision is to allow voice calls, the cost is still going to be prohibitive in the near term, and that is perfectly okay with me.



1. mturby unregistered

there is no need to make phone calls from a plane. cmon guys, that can wait! + u will be able to concentrate on whatever u r doing, reading, playing on ur android, sleeping, its not a big deal. do we really really really need to call people 24/7? i have never taken a flight before xD

5. boosook

Posts: 1442; Member since: Nov 19, 2012

I agree, but most people just can't live with their phones switched off… as soon as the plane touches down, they start texting, they must have something really important to say… people can't turn the phone off even while they're watching a movie or a show in a theatre, look at the people around you next time… chances are that many of them will follow their facebook feed more than the movie. It has become a sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder for many...they just feel bad if they can't use the phone, just as a smoker needs to smoke a cigarette!

2. Shatter

Posts: 2036; Member since: May 29, 2013

Unless you have TMOBILE WIFI CALLING!!!!!!

3. andynaija

Posts: 1261; Member since: Sep 08, 2012

"CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW??!!" back in the days of GTE. Verizon absorbed GTE, it's from this situation that Verizon probably came up with that popular phrase!

4. Gemmol

Posts: 793; Member since: Nov 09, 2011

lol if phone calls are allowed people will be pissed a lot, but it do not matter to me, I can sleep in places with loud noises, as long as someone not touching me, bring on the noise

6. dspkblympkbl

Posts: 52; Member since: May 23, 2013

"Imagine that one-sided conversation phone call in the seat next to you, “WHAT??!! SAY THAT AGAIN! CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW??!! OF COURSE I DO!! CAN YOU PICK ME UP??!! WHAT??!! SAY THAT AGAIN! HUH??!! LET ME CALL YOU RIGHT BACK TO GET A BETTER CONNECTION!!” Ugh. That is what it sounded like back in the days of GTE Airfone. Technical issues aside, loud conversations, whether on a cell phone or not is simply annoying." That alone is reason enough to NOT allow calls during flights. I mean its bad enough that you're stuck with a stranger with really nowhere to go for what feels like an eternity!

7. threed61

Posts: 259; Member since: May 27, 2011

A loud phone call is still better than a fattie plastered up against your side, or a screaming kid.

10. dspkblympkbl

Posts: 52; Member since: May 23, 2013

and who'd think it is making the phone call?

8. Augustine

Posts: 1043; Member since: Sep 28, 2013

The advantage of allowing in-flight calls is not calling your ex-wife from 30,000ft, but calling your brother from 10,000ft when the airplane is circling around a congested airport. This an outdated rule that has to go, even if the FCC is merely catching up half a decade past due with European, Middle-Eastern and Far-Eastern countries.

9. SuperMaoriBro

Posts: 533; Member since: Jun 23, 2012

Screaming kicking your chair while being stuck between two sweaty fatties is the worst

11. bugsbunny00

Posts: 2265; Member since: Jun 07, 2013

Text would be fine, allow that..

12. hypergreatthing

Posts: 44; Member since: Jun 13, 2012

.... I know that the idea of phone calls is so new on the airplanes, considering sinde the early 1990s airfone was installed on many airplanes that allowed phone coversations. If you ever recall seeing those phones in the back of the seats in front of you with a credit card reader attached that you could use if you really wanted to pay the high fees associated with it. People didn't have loud annoying conversations then, and they won't now.

13. zennacko unregistered

The definition of "hell" to a flier currently is: fat passenger seated on a tight 4-5-4 economy class plane, on a red eye flight of 8 hours+ to the United States (after the budget cuts, the path from passport control to connection flight became a huge pain). Now if you add this to: annoying people that can't stop talking and they talk loud because they're seated closer to the wings, and the engines' noise and they couldn't care less it's f-ing 3 AM and this is universally "too late to call someone living where the sun haven't risen yet". Just leave internet access and text messages (the old SMS, not advanced stuff like whatsapp) and ban facebook and other pointless viral sites, like 9gag. It would be VERY annoying to hear people laughing like crazy and getting all "Look at this pic my buddy shared! ROFL ZOMG this is so hilarious (and laughter goes for 30 minutes, it's 3 AM and you want to try to sleep)" - My 2 cents on the subject

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