Technological advancement and change has a history of creating uncertainty and sparking significant public debate. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will seek public comment on a new rule to expand access to mobile wireless services onboard aircraft.
The commission's proposal marks the beginning of a process to keep pace with today's technologies, to remove outdated government rules and regulations and to put the control over phone use in the hands of the consumer and airlines.
And, it's critical that the flying public know what the FCC is - and is not - proposing.
First, the proposal is just that - a proposal on which we will collect and carefully review consumer and technical input before taking any final action.
Second, the proposed new rules maintain the ban on cellular service in-flight on planes unless the aircraft is equipped with new specialized onboard equipment. The proposal recognizes how these new onboard access systems keep signals from mobile devices from interfering with terrestrial networks. These interference concerns were the reason why the FCC prohibited cell phone use on planes more than two decades ago. But the technology has since evolved.
As a frequent flyer, I look forward to using my mobile devices in-flight to check e-mails or surf the Web, but I certainly empathize with those who don't want to be stuck listening to loud phone conversations in-flight. Because the airline can block or otherwise control voice calls, there is a technical solution to this concern.
Dozens of countries around the world already permit their use and airlines have taken advantage of the flexibility those new systems offer. It is not uncommon, for instance, for an airline to program the new system to allow texting, email and Web access - but not voice calls. In a free market such decisions belong in the hands of the airlines and their consumers.
We're at the start of a process - one that is pro-competition, pro-consumer and pro-technology. If the Commission ultimately adopts new rules as proposed, I expect consumers will make their voices heard and the marketplace will make the right decisions.
Tom Wheeler is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.