The US Department of Transportation isn't usually the first government agency I think of when considering ways to make life less stressful.
Yet, the DOT may very well emerge as my hero in the ongoing saga of whether or not we should be allowed to use our smartphones to make voice calls on airplanes.
On December 12, 2013, the US Federal Communications Commission confirmed with a 3-2 vote that it would continue with its bid to overturn the current in-flight cellphone ban. A very scientific survey of my personal Facebook feed reveals that nine out of 10 frequent travelers screamed "NOOOOOOOO!!!" at the mere thought of overturning the ban.
Somehow foreseeing potential public outrage, the always-sensitive DOT stepped in and said that if the FCC overturns the 22-year-old ban on in-flight cellphone use (yep, you read that right: 22 years), the DOT may enact its own ban.
There are a number of other very good reasons we can all stop hyperventilating. First off, we have a whole year of collective freaking out ahead of us. The Dec. 12 FCC vote was a procedural one, approving a year-long review process that would include the opportunity for public comment, as detailed in this Bloomberg News report, "The Chatter Behind the In-Flight Cellphone Ban."
Both houses of Congress are weighing in as well. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) have co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit in-flight voice calls. In fact, Alexander spoke for many of us when he told The Washington Post:
This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts.
Then, there's the substantial (and costly) technology upgrades the airlines will have to make, and that's where things get really interesting.
For years, we've had in-flight WiFi available that allows us, for a considerable fee, to check our email and surf the Internet at the speed of dialup. Theoretically, we could use our devices to also make VoIP calls. Some airlines claim to block the VoIP ports in their in-flight Internet services. Mostly, though, the WiFi bandwidth available on flights today would make VoIP calling a pretty unpleasant, if not impossible, experience.
That could all change in 2014. For starters, JetBlue said its Fly-Fi in-flight WiFi service is capable of carrying streaming video. The service is being tested on three planes right now, and is expected to roll out on the airline's fleet of Airbus A320 planes by the end of 2014.
Meanwhile, according to the BBC, high-speed in-flight WiFi with enough bandwidth for streaming video could be available on many airlines as early as next year.
Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industry, is looking to license a new satellite system for aircraft and other forms of transportation. The technology is known as Earth Stations on Mobile Platforms (ESOMP). Here's how TV-bay's Dick Hobbs describes it:
An ESOMP is a small communications device which is attached to a mobile platform: a train, a plane, a ship or a coach. It communicates with a service provider through a fixed earth station, either direct or via a satellite (if the plane or ship is in mid-ocean). The aim is to provide high speed internet to the vehicle.
Enabling cellphone use on airplanes would require a different device: the decidedly unsexy picocell. Around since the early 2000s, these are basically tiny cell towers that are most often used to improve cellular access in buildings or public places where connections are spotty. I fondly remember attending CTIA conferences in the mid-2000s at which feverish picocell vendors would try to convince me that their technology was going to change life as we know it. I guess I should have paid more attention.
Cellular use has been permitted on flights outside the US for several years, and picocells are the technology of choice. During flights, an antenna routes the cellular signals from the picocell to a communications satellite, which patches it through to a base station on the ground where it's connected to a cellular network, Mike Hi explains in his Motherboard blog post, "Why It's Suddenly Safe to Use Cell Phones on Planes."
Even if the ban gets lifted in the US, it will take some time for airlines to equip planes with cellular service. No doubt the telecommunications industry is watching closely and ready to rush into the breach as soon as possible. The question for airlines is what is worth more: the additional revenue that could potentially be gained from charging for in-flight cellular access, or the last vestiges of any goodwill that travelers may have toward airlines that have generally made customer comfort a pretty low priority in recent years.
Here's the next bit of good news. British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air France, KLM, Emirates, Aeroflot, and Virgin Atlantic are among the airlines outside the US that offer cellular service on some of their planes. Yet, according to a Computerworld article, "Cell phones on planes may be heading for the U.S. but will anyone use them?," uptake has been relatively low, partly because it's extremely expensive. According to Computerworld:
France's aviation agency said about 2 percent of passengers used their phones for voice calls, while Jordan's said only about 10 percent of travelers used cellular at all. New Zealand authorities said there were 10 text messages sent for each minute of voice calling, and Brazil said an average of 0.3 passengers per flight leg made calls. The average length of those calls was 110 seconds.
If market forces don't kill in-flight voice calls, take heart: We still have the DOT waiting in the wings to keep "Tower of Babel Airlines" from becoming a reality.
— Susan Nunziata, , Director of Editorial, EnterpriseEfficiency.com