`Hello' from 35,000 ft.

FCC paves the way for cell-phone, high-speed Web service during flights

many passengers fear being subjected to incessant babble.

December 16, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Poor Garth W. Jopling. As president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, he would have loved to expound on how much business air travelers would appreciate having cell-phone and high-speed Internet service during flights.

But caught boarding a plane in Toronto, he couldn't talk. His association's corporate spokesman, however, was happy to discuss the Federal Communications Commission's vote yesterday that paves the way for air travelers to surf the Web by 2006 - and opens the door to ending the ban on in-flight cell-phone use.

"He'd love to be able to talk from his seat on the plane," said Jack Riepe, communications director for the travel executive's group. "How ironic."

The FCC's move will give air travelers more options for communicating with people on the ground by allowing airlines to offer wireless high-speed Internet connections.

The technology would work through the same frequencies used with seatback phones, which - though expensive and unreliable - are now the only way for passengers to reach out and touch someone.

The agency also will solicit public comment about lifting the ban on in-flight cell-phone calls. In addition to safety concerns, a key consideration could be whether essentially captive passengers want to be surrounded by phone talkers.

"The ability to communicate is a vital one, but good cell-phone etiquette is also essential," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein. "Our job is to see if this is possible and then let consumers work out the etiquette."

With a cell phone glued to his ear and his fingers tapping his laptop's keyboard yesterday at a BWI cafe, Curt Tillotson enthusiastically endorsed the FCC vote.

Tillotson said he and his co-worker in Best Buy's corporate development division, who travel often, would relish using their flight time more productively. As it was, Tillotson was racing to e-mail information to his team in Minneapolis before boarding a flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"I have to get it into the system before getting on the plane," he said. "The afternoon is kind of shot because the time on the plane is unproductive."

More effective

Self-proclaimed workaholic Adam Macaulay, vice president of technology for CorasWorks, a software company in McLean, Va., said he'd be more effective if he could stay in constant communication.

"On a four-hour flight to Seattle," he said, "it would be great for me to sit down and talk to people and really get some work done."

It's not clear when air travelers might be able to start using cell phones in flight because of the ban by the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration.

FCC officials worry about how airplane cell use might affect signals on the ground. The FAA's concern is whether airborne calls would interfere with a plane's navigation and electrical systems.

The FCC has commissioned a firm to study those issues.

"If safety is an issue, to me that's the main thing," said Irasema Hover of Frederick, who was returning yesterday to BWI from Orlando, Fla. "You can never be too safe."

Rather than the safety risks, Steve Lawrence fretted yesterday about the annoyance posed by airborne cell-phone calls. The chairman of Spec. Rescue International, a Virginia Beach, Va., company that trains fire and police personnel, looks forward to his regular flights around the world as down time. Hearing cell phones prattle wouldn't complement his relax-mode.

"Airplanes are the only place I get peace and quiet anymore," he said. "This is frightening."

Pilots not worried

Pilots aren't worried about the safety issues or, thanks to cabin doors, the noise, said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. "Talk to the flight attendants association," he joked. "They have to deal with it."

Officials at Amtrak, where passengers have always been able to use laptops and cell phones, said the invention of the "quiet car" in 2001 has given train travelers relief.

"They're popular," Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said. "That's a disadvantage of an airplane, you can't compartmentalize the cabin."

William E. Pallone, president of Verizon Airfone, the sole domestic provider for seatback phones, said the industry has heard a clear demand for the new technology. He compares the seatback phones to pay phones at an airport - outdated and underused.

The FCC will sponsor an auction where companies that want to provide the Internet service can bid for it. Verizon Airfone will bid to be the sole provider, Pallone said. Other companies are pushing for a two-provider setup.

`Give me' e-mail

"People say give me the Internet, give me corporate e-mail and get out of my way," Pallone said.

"There's any number of people who'd like to use laptops and [personal digital assistants] - everybody wants to stay connected."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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