Cellphone calls on planes under consideration by FCC

Rules preventing in flight use of cellphones to make voice calls and access data services may be overturned, the FCC has hinted, with the federal commission proposing changes to policies it describes as "outdated and restrictive." The loosening of cellular services – which could include making voice calls while in the air – will be discussed at a December 12th meeting, the FCC confirmed; according to sources at the commission, planes themselves will effectively be turned into mobile base-stations, thus avoiding any potential interference with ground-based antennas.

"Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband" FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

The statement does not set out exactly what services the FCC believes should now get the green light, and which should not. However, according to sources speaking to USA Today, one part of the proposed changes is that airlines would have the option to allow voice calls during flight.

A source within the FCC says that changes in wireless hardware provisioning has softened the commission's reluctance on cellphones. "On the technical side of things, there have been changes that do allow wireless services on planes that prevent interference with ground service" the insider confirmed.

"We think there is some benefit to giving airlines the choice of improving consumer choice and access, and let them to decide whether or not they're going to allow voice."

However, there's more to the final decision than technical approval, and airlines will have to balance the potential for voice calls disturbing passengers and getting in the way of safety announcements with the extra convenience of being able to speak from the skies. It's a far more contentious move than recent loosening of rules against using electronic items like tablets and ereaders during takeoff and landing.