Planes, trains and mobiles

02 Dec 2013

As featured on TM Forum's the Insider blog.

News that USA regulators will propose allowing the general use of mobile phones on aircraft is not all good news according to feedback from the general public. When the story was aired in a Washington Post blog recently, it garnered over 270 responses, mostly unfavorable.

The proposed rule change by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would allow phone use once a plane reaches an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Restrictions would still be in place during take-offs and landings.

The FCC’s new chairman, Tom Wheeler, was quoted as saying, “Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules.”

The new guidelines will let airlines install special equipment to relay wireless signals from the plane to the ground, by way of a satellite connection, each plane acting as a kind of small cell. Many long-haul planes operating in Europe and Asia are already fitted with similar systems with the European Commission recently approving passengers’ use of 3G and 4G data from airplanes as well.

This follows relaxation of the rules last month by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) for use of all personal electronics below 10,000 feet so long as the devices remained on “airplane mode.” But that is a completely different matter as the new proposal means people will be able to ‘talk’ on their phones in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.

This is where the most concerns arise with respondents to the Washington Post blog, and rightfully so. As people travelling on trains will attest there is nothing more distracting and annoying than having to listen to somebody’s personal or business conversation usually performed at high-decibels to overcome background noise or poor reception.

It has become such a problem in Europe that most trains have designated ‘Quiet Zones’ where the use of mobile phones is banned and calls need to be taken in the entranceways or space between the carriages. In Japan, small sound-proofed, standing-room-only phone booths are positioned in carriages. Planes do not have the luxury of space, as the shortage of toilets on board most commercial aircraft illustrates, so that concept may not be feasible.

Does this mean people will make calls in the toilets and exacerbate the problem? I doubt it. As one irate responder stated,” Exactly what we need, more inane one-sided conversations. Are you so needy you can't spend some quiet time to yourself? Read, sleep, stare out the window, just shut up.” However, all those concerns about privacy, noise pollution, disruption to sleep, ringing phones and rude behaviour expressed by this and other readers of the Washington Post may actually never occur.

As a regular long-haul flyer I have been on a number of flights that have on-board calling facilities. Emirates, for example, is making the service available on all its aircraft. My experience is that people don’t even bother using it, period, even if it is offered to them on a plate. And it’s for much the same reason they never used phones built into the control units of their seat TV screens that have existed for years, and why international roaming is scorned. It’s all about the money!

Ah yes, the money! There is no way airlines will invest in the new equipment unless they see a return on investment. That means they will act as mobile virtual network operators of sorts and they will expect go get their share of call revenues. Those calls will not be cheap and, worse still, passengers will not be aware of the costs until they get their bills or see their pre-paid balances diminish.

On the other hand, airlines that offer internet data access on flights have prescribed charges based on time or per flight. Not cheap, but at least you know what you are up for.

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