That Guy Next to You on the Plane Can't Start Making Calls — Yet

The FCC, obviously tired of Americans' deep affection for the government, is considering permitting airlines to allow cell service — and, apparently, voice calls — on flights. Here's how this horrible idea will work.

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The FCC, obviously tired of Americans' deep affection for the government, is considering permitting airlines to allow cell service — and, apparently, voice calls — on flights. This is how this horrible idea will work.

There's no law against making a phone call from a plane right now. The trick is getting your voice to the ground. There are two ways of doing this — and two reasons that it's not happening.

Over a cell network. This is how you use your phone all the time: you have reception, you place the call, the phone connects to a cell tower that is itself connected to a series of cell towers, you start talking. The challenge on a plane is that reception from ground-based towers is often poor, meaning that even if you turned your phone on while flying across the country, you wouldn't get a usable signal.

Over an internet connection. This is what's known as "voice over internet protocol" or VoIP. Think Sype. Your voice is converted to data, that data is sent over a network, and the person on the other end has software that converts the data back into audio. There's no technical reason (besides iffy bandwidth) preventing you from making VoIP calls right now. The Wire spoke with Steve Nolan of Gogo Wireless, and he explained that the company has a series of what amount to large Wi-Fi base stations, aimed up at the sky across the country. When you connect, you're connecting directly to a receiver on the ground.

So why don't people make VoIP calls? "If [airlines] want it, they can do it today," Nolan told us — but "our airline partners don't want the talk part." As Bloomberg noted earlier this month, most major U.S. carriers ban voice calls, even using VoIP, largely because Americans find the prospect of being in a small tube with people yakking on the phone somewhat unpleasant. “Voice communications, or voice calls, in a confined space such as an aircraft is simply something our customers do not want,” a Delta representative told Bloomberg.

That's apparently specific to Americans. What the FCC is proposing is to allow airlines to address the tech limitation present in the first case — which already exists on international carriers. Those airlines generally connect to a cellular network using a technology called picocell. In essence, a picocell base station acts as a miniature cell tower that's embedded on the plane. When a person on the flight wants to make a call, she picks up the in-flight cell signal, which is powerful enough to maintain a connection to towers on the ground. A picocell system from a company called AeroMobile installed on Emirates airlines could handle six simultaneous in-flight calls as of last year.

Because this wouldn't be a cell "tower" operated by your cell phone provider, calls on international flights are subject to roaming charges — meaning that this isn't necessarily going to be cheap. Then there's the question of data. Emirates' information page promises that you can use your phone "as you would do on the ground" — but if that means web surfing isn't clear. Picocells are often used to extend cellular networks, including as data needs ramp up, but it seems unlikely that in-flight bandwidth would be terribly robust. (We've reached out to experts for clarification on this point.) Of course, Emirates and Virgin also have Wi-Fi connectivity, so if you wanted to surf the web, that's probably an easier — and cheaper — option.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the FCC has tried this before and wouldn't make it mandatory now.

When the FCC made a similar proposal in 2004, it received more than 8,000 comments. The FCC dropped the proposal in 2007 amid objections from flight attendants and other groups who said it would be a nuisance. …

If adopted, the FCC's order would merely permit airlines to implement wireless technology on planes. It wouldn't require them to do so, and individual airlines would then decide whether to enable voice services on their flights.

In other words, don't expect as rapid a deployment in the wake of a rules change as we saw when the FCC permitted the use of electronic devices during take-off. Letting people read their Kindles is one thing. Letting them hold a three-hour conversation on a three-hour flight is another thing entirely.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.