Everyone who’s over a certain age remembers that there once was a time when airplane passengers weren’t allowed to use electronic devices when the plane was not at a certain altitude. That changed, however, during the Obama administration, when the FAA and FCC relaxed some rules.
Around the same time, in 2013, then-Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler proposed going a step further and began a process that would have led to greater use of mobile broadband on flights, opening up the possibility of airplanes full of passengers making cell phone calls throughout their flights.
Now, it appears, that plan is off.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had indicated earlier in his term that Wheeler’s proposal would be scuttled, and now it has been. Prior to Thanksgiving, the FCC officially terminated the 2013 proceeding, known as Expanding Access to Mobile Wireless Services Onboard Aircraft.
“Based on the record in response to the Commission’s proposals, we decline to pursue, and hereby close, this rulemaking proceeding,” the FCC’s letter said.
“The record is insufficient to determine any reasonable solution that would strike an appropriate balance of competing interests. There is strong opposition to the Commission’s proposals from many commenters in this proceeding, including our nation’s airline pilots and flight attendants, who argue that it ‘fail[s] to address significant safety and national security concerns.’”
“A number of commenters argue that the results of international studies and operations may not adequately reflect whether onboard mobile operations can be safely permitted in the United States, and that rigorous technical studies based on U.S.-specific standards remain necessary.”
The announcement arrived prior to another one from Pai, on Monday, that he plans to step down from his position on Jan. 20, the same day as presumptive President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Pai, who was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama to one of the commission’s Republican seats, became chairman in 2017, and his term was to run through 2022.
It’s not clear yet who Biden plans to appoint to the FCC, although Jessica Rosenworcel, a current FCC commissioner, is widely seen as the frontrunner. It’s also unclear whether the mobile broadband on flights plan would gain new life under a Democratic-controlled FCC.
In the new administration, regardless of who gets the chairmanship, the FCC is expected to tackle net neutrality, as well as the continuing rollout of 5G and ongoing controversy about Section 230, and pushes for regulation of content on the Internet. President Donald Trump recently nominated Nathan Simington, who has been described as a “social media bias hawk,” as an FCC commissioner, after it pulled the renomination of Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who had expressed skepticism about the president’s executive order cracking down on the social media companies.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.