The Federal Communications Commission just withdrew a proposal that would have allowed cell phone use at high altitudes. While most of us don't use our phones to make calls while flying, a December 2013 effort would have allowed passengers to call people above 10,000 feet.
Cell phone signals have the potential to cause disruption, though any risk is much-mitigated since the introduction of the rule in 1991. Then-FCC commissioner Tom Wheeler's rule would have mandated that devices are turned off or on airplane mode during takeoff and landing, which would have eliminated those concerns.
The Washington Post writes that although "most consumers may have difficulty getting a cellular signal at 30,000 feet, changes in technology are increasingly enabling the use of cellular networks in the air. Communications satellites, drones and even lasers have been proposed as ways to get connectivity to hard-to-reach areas."
New FCC commissioner Ajit Pai says that removing the proposal is a strike for the people.
“I stand with airline pilots, flight attendants, and America’s flying public against the FCC’s ill-conceived 2013 plan to allow people to make cellphone calls on planes,” Pai said in a statement . “I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest. Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet.”
“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”
Europe already allows passengers to use their cell networks while on board, and has since 2013. The catch is that cell companies charge their customers high roaming rates because of the technical way (involving satellites relaying the signal to the ground then back to the air) that the cell network reaches their customers.