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U.S. transportation head joins debate on in-flight calls

U.S. President Barack Obama (unseen) announces venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) at the Stat
U.S. President Barack Obama (unseen) announces venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) at the Stat

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Department of Transportation waded into the fray on the use of cell phones during airplane flights on Thursday, saying that his department would consider whether such calls should be banned even as the telecommunications regulator looks at the issue from the technical side.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday said the department will review whether allowing phone calls during flights "is fair to consumers" as the Federal Communications Commission is poised to begin a review of technical rules to make such phone calls possible.

"Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight -- and I am concerned about this possibility as well," Foxx said in a statement.

"As the FCC has said before, their sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight. ... USDOT will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls."

The FCC later on Thursday will vote on Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal that the agency relax its technical rules that regulate the use of telephones aboard planes.

The DOT regulates the aviation industry, while the FCC regulates the use of airwaves.

The FCC's proposal would let the airlines decide whether to allow passengers to make phone calls, send texts or otherwise use their own wireless data and call services.

Wheeler, in statements and in an essay published in USA Today on Thursday, has pushed hard that the FCC's proposal is purely technical and would only give airlines the flexibility to use the latest technology.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about that," Wheeler told lawmakers at an oversight hearing at the House of Representatives on Thursday.

"We are proposing to continue the ban on mobile devices that can interfere with terrestrial networks. But where there's new onboard technologies that eliminates that potential for interference, then there's no need for an interference rule. This is the responsible thing to do."

Nonetheless, the FCC's proposal has launched a heated debate over the social implications of letting passengers chatter during flights.

A Quinnipiac University national poll released on Thursday found 59 percent of American voters opposed the use of cell phones on airlines, while 30 percent were in support.

Some carriers, such as Delta Air Lines, have already said they would not let fliers use cell phones in flight even if the FCC allows it, and several lawmakers have introduced bills to block in-flight phone calls.

The FCC's review of the rules has been under way for several years as the technology has changed and made the restrictions outdated. Several lawmakers, in fact, have lauded the FCC for trying to ensure their regulations keep up with the pace of modern technologies.

"While we recognize that there will be passionate discussion and debate by people about whether, when and how to use wireless devices on airplanes, the commission correctly determined the first necessary step is to investigate whether or not it is technically feasible to operate devices without causing harmful interference to avionics or to wireless networks on the ground," said Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs at wireless association CTIA.

Some airlines in Europe, the Middle East and Asia already allow in-flight phone use.

Both the FCC and the Transportation Department proceedings are expected to take time and collect public comment.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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