Time To Challenge Airline Paranoia On Wireless

from the second-that dept

We've discussed this issue on Techdirt a few times in the past, but here's Guy Kewney taking a stand on something I believe in as well: it's time that the airlines (or regulatory officials) explain to us what exactly is the problem with using wireless devices on a plane. Right now, the best we can get is that there "could be" a problem - but no one seems to have answers to what those problems might be. At the same time, there has yet to be one recorded incident of problems with mobile phones or WiFi devices being used on airplanes. Kewney points out that on almost every flight he's been on lately, at least one mobile phone has started ringing in flight (meaning someone left it on - whether on purpose or not). I was on a flight recently where someone in the seat behind me made three or four phone calls during the flight. I have a friend who routinely leaves his Blackberry device on while on airplanes, so he can check his email. The article says that some pilots even keep their phones on in the cockpit while they're in the air. The other reason (not mentioned in the article) that is often mentioned for banning in-flight phone use is that it messes with carriers' towers - but even that doesn't seem to have much evidence behind it. The only reasonable argument I've heard for banning phones on planes is so that we're not trapped next to someone yakking away for hours on a cross-country flight.
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  1. icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 1 May 2003 @ 1:33pm

    Terrestrial Networks and Annoying Folk

    The key reason that in-flight cellular use is banned is that it disrupts the cellular network.

    The network was designed as terrestrial, with 2-D cells laid across the surface of the earth. As the network is laid out on the ground in cells, the frequencies are re-used by towers and customers in non-adjacent cells. That means that you can be in Hoboken using your cellphone on channel x, while another cellular user is in Harlem also talking on channel x. Even on the same frequency, because of the distance, your phone on the ground in Hoboken does not interfere with the phone in Harlem. Now imagine you are in a plane 15,000 ft over Manhattan. Your signal is equally strong in Harlem and Hoboken. This destroys the geographic frequency re-use of the cellular network, and as you know, frequency spectrum is a rare resource in this industry. Simply put, airplane-based cellular use does not fit the design of our current cellular networks.

    The 9/11 calls are perfect examples. Yes, some calls worked some of the time, but in an unreliable, low quality way. We've all heard the 911 tapes: failed handoffs and dropped calls were the order of the day.

    Lastly, there is a possibility that the carriers have a hard time managing, and thus billing for these calls. That's a big no-no to for-profit companies.

    If you research, you will find that because it is bad for the communications industry, the FCC is the agency that disallows use of cell phones on planes, NOT the FAA (although your cabin crew usually states the opposite). There is no FAA regulation against such phone use, but it is airline policy.

    I don't believe for a second that Blackberrys, cell phones, or even the more powerful signals of WiFi can disrupt a plane in flight, but they can disrupt a cellular network. If I believed that a cellular was capable of taking down a plane, I would take the bus, because there are always a few phones that were mistakenly left on.

    That said, I think the FCC should get a law against people who think they need to yell into their cell phone before we even consider allowing use on planes. Ay caramba, the darned cabin crew and pilot's announcements are loud and annoying enough, I don't want to have to listen to someone's half-conversation too!


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