Regulatory and Technological Limits on Cell Phone Usage Aboard Commercial Aircraft

Currently under United States law the use of cell phones is forbidden by aircraft passengers. This is due to the concern that cell phones could have a damaging effect on the electronics aboard the aircraft.

In addition to lawmakers, radio astronomers have voiced their unease about the interference of cell phones on their work. The problem with cell phones is that the computer chips allow the signal strength of the transmissions to be continuously readjusted to save battery power. Thus, the further the transmitter the stronger the signal. Currently, a single-frequency system is already in place with onboard phones and should the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) change its signal standards then cell phones could become part of the future on aircrafts.

“Picocell” is a device which could make this all possible. Picocell works by acting like the local transmitter only its not sitting on earth it’s within the vicinity of the aircraft. The transmitter at closer ranges can reduce the signal strength required for the cell phone to work aboard an aircraft. Thus, the cell phone would transmit to a station on the ground through a single frequency thereby avoiding intrusion and enabling cell phones to be safely used aboard aircraft while they are airborne. (Cell phone usage is permitted while aircraft is on the runway and whiled parked at the passenger terminal).

A preliminary study on the safety of cell phones and their effects on airplanes are currently underway. Depending on the results the study, the current prohibition and policies against cell phone usage while airborne could be reversed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FCC went to the public to get feedback as to their response in lifting the ban on cell phone usage in aircrafts which was based on the possible damage and effect that could be had on the wireless networks based on the earth. Public response was overwhelming with a consensus that cell phone usage was not worth relinquishing both the tranquility and peace found amongst the general public while flying within the confines of an airplane. This was especially true of passengers traveling on longer domestic flights or transcontinental excursions.

With this response in favor of abandoning the use of cell phones on flights, the FCC and FAA are inclined to abandon the idea of passengers using cell phones on airplanes within territorial borders of the United States. Conversely, the Europeans are in favor of using cell phones aboard aircraft and are moving forward to loosen restrictions. The trend to European adoption of onboard cell phone use was evident when Airbus signed a deal with Onair to equip the A380 jumbo aircraft with special technology that allows cell phone usage while in flight.

The success of the cell phone aboard aircraft remains to be seen. Experts believe that even if the technological barriers can be overcome that the per minute charges and network access costs must decrease in order for cell phone usage to be economically viable on commercial aircraft flights..