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Untapped demand for in-flight mobile services

By ROSLYN LAYTON, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Dec. 20, 2013 at 8:55 AM   |   Comments

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- The United States exemplifies mobile leadership in many ways: mobile operating systems, LTE networks, smartphones and mobile applications. But these advances can't be used when flying if the FCC ban on mobile communications remains in place.

It is ironic that while consumers are clamoring for connectivity in every other aspect of life that there is movement to ban connectivity in the air.

Last week's decision by the Federal Communications Commission to open a period of public comment about lifting the ban on airborne mobile communications was met with some protest. The Association of Flight Attendants have vowed to ban cellphone calls on flights saying that they "compromise flight attendants' ability to maintain order in an emergency, increase cabin noise and tension among passengers and add unacceptable risk to aviation security."

While in-flight mobile services have been enabled in the rest of the world for more than 5 years without problem, there is a belief that all hell will break loose if the ban is lifted in the United States.

This is an overreaction based on unfounded fears. A review of the facts is in order.

A Federal Aviation Administration questionnaire of non-U.S. aviation authorities indicated no documented occurrences of mobile phones affecting flight safety. No negative comments about in-flight mobile service, nor incidents of "air rage" nor episodes requiring flight attendants intervention with mobile services were recorded.

However, there were reports about mobile phones not working and calls being interrupted in flight.

The 11-country survey, including Brazil, the United Kingdom, Australia and France, indicated that fewer than 2 percent of customers used voice services in-flight, that phone calls were less than 2 minutes long and that texting exceeded voice by a factor of 10.

The expense of in-flight roaming prices, about $3-$4 per minute, curbs the frequency and duration of phone calls. But even should the cost of voice fall, the onboard network technology can enable only about five or six calls from a plane at one time.

Indeed the vast majority of passengers who use mobile services do so for data and messaging.

Kevin Rogers, chief executive officer of AeroMobile, an in-flight mobile service active on more than 170 aircraft across nine airlines including Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Lufthansa, SAS, and Aer Lingus notes: "We have hundreds of connected flights flying to and from the U.S. every day but at the moment the service has to be switched off when we reach U.S. airspace. We know there is demand for this service from U.S. travelers -- one-quarter of the people using the service on our trans-Atlantic routes connected from U.S. mobile networks."

OnAir, which serves both the air and cruise industries, has provided in-flight services for more than 6 years. Some 4.5 million passengers annually use in-flight services above every continent except North America. The company hasn't received any complaints, CEO Ian Dawkins says. Indeed many Americans are taking advantage of the service but only outside the United States at present.

Connectivity is the new normal on airplanes. Aircraft built today are already supplied with the equipment necessary to enable passenger communications and many airlines are busy retrofitting older planes.

Indeed for business travelers on the long haul having connectivity may be de rigueur and those airlines that don't may risk losing customers. Tim Spring, CEO of Nutri-Vet Pet Products in New York City noted that one year he flew 125,000 miles, which he estimated to be about 20 hours in a plane per month, a long time to be prevented from communicating with colleagues.

But it's not just business travelers who want to take advantage of these services. Many appreciate the ability to send an email or text, make a Facebook or Twitter update or read fresh news on a mobile device.

Though the flight attendants' union has raised concerns, the reality is that they and the airlines already have control passenger communications and that wouldn't change with the FCC lifting the ban.

Consider the following:

1. The FCC rulemaking would only remove the prohibition for airlines to offer mobile services. Airlines would still have to make a policy -- and enable the aircraft with the necessary equipment. Airlines can still choose to ban the services outright.

2. Removing the ban allows airlines to decide which mix of services they want to provide their customers. They can choose to enable data and text only, for example. They can choose to ban voice. Or they can offer all services.

3. Flight attendants can turn off the systems during night flights.

4. Flight attendants can turn off the systems at any time.

There is no doubt that flight attendants care about security but mobile phones don't pose security risks. The FAA in allowing portable electronic devices has confirmed that, and the FCC has made a technical determination that mobile communications from airplanes to the ground are safe.

Even the flight attendants' union doesn't oppose the in-flight text and data; it's the voice aspects that concern them. But nevertheless they support keeping an obsolete law on the books because it conforms to their preferences, not necessarily to the facts or to the wishes of passengers.

Fortunately the FCC has the integrity to suggest that laws that are out of date should be removed. As FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn observed: "This debate should not prevent the FCC from updating rules for air travel. If enough members of the public don't want voice calls in airplanes, the airlines will hear that and prohibit them."

The point is that there is no need for legislation or regulation when airlines and passengers can decide themselves what they want.

There may be an errant passenger who makes a voice call that lasts longer than 2 minutes or has less than pleasant volume but the overwhelming force to hold oneself in check and not be rude to others is what allows hundreds of people to sit together in peace on an airplane. It's not a FCC order that makes this possible.

While laws and lobbies may be holding back the future in the United States, in-flight mobile is racing ahead in the rest of the world. The FCC is trying to get the United States up to speed to the global standard.

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(Roslyn Layton is a Ph.D. fellow in Internet Economics at the Center for Communication, Media and Information Technologies at Aalborg University in Denmark and a vice president of Strand Consult, an independent consultancy to the mobile industry. She enjoys in-flight mobile in other countries and would like to see it in the United States. Neither Strand Consult nor Aalborg University have a vested interest in the issue. )

--

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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