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U.S. regulators to consider in-flight calls, text messaging

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday set plans to expand the use of cell phones aboard airplanes, considering the possibility of allowing in-flight calls and text messaging.

Communications regulators on December 12 will vote on a proposal that would allow airlines to offer passengers an option of making phone calls, sending texts or otherwise using their own wireless data and call services.

"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in announcing that he has circulated the proposal.

After the five-member commission votes on the proposal on December 12, the FCC would collect comments on it and eventually finalize it to revise its rules, which currently prohibit using wireless services in-flight for fear of interfering with other networks. It would work together with the Federal Aviation Administration and the airline industry.

Starting last month, some U.S. airlines started allowing passengers to use certain electronic devices throughout an entire flight after the FAA ended a long-standing ban that required they be turned off during take-off and landing.

FCC officials say the new proposal, if adopted, would still prohibit cellphone use below 10,000 feet at take-off and landing and would impose some technical requirements for airlines that decide to allow use of phones onboard.

Experts point out that the technology already exists to collect phone calls and route them to the ground, solving the problem of having to jump from one cell tower to another to complete the call. Some airlines in Europe, the Middle East and Asia already allow in-flight phone use, FCC officials say.

The FCC in May also started deliberations on a proposal that would offer a new type of in-flight broadband service promising fliers higher Wi-Fi speeds and better connections.

U.S. air travelers can already access the Internet on some flights. But the speed of such service, which rely either on connections with antennas on the ground or satellites, is slow.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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