As a result, air passengers may be allowed to use their phones to sent text messages and go online while flying at 10,000 feet or above but not make voice calls.
"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 cellphones in flight -- and I am concerned about this possibility as well," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
It's the FCC's job to determine if it is technically feasible to use cellphones safely during flight, but the Transportation Department's job is "to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers," Foxx said.
He said his agency would solicit widespread public comment on the issue.
Several hours later the FCC voted 3-2 to advance a proposal to end the technical ban on in-flight cellphone use once a plane reaches 10,000 feet.
The phones would still be restricted during takeoffs and landings.
Commission officials pointed out their evaluation was limited solely to whether the ban could still be justified on a technical basis.
Like the Transportation Department, the FCC will now seek public comment on its measure.
The FCC has prohibited cellphone use on flights since 1991 because of concerns their use would interfere with wireless networks on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration, a DOT agency, recently said cellphone technology has advanced and so the phones posed no safety threat to aircraft.
The FCC said Thursday it would leave it to the airlines to decide whether to retrofit their planes to provide wireless services. The airlines would also decide whether voice calls would be allowed.
FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler told a House committee Thursday the in-flight ban on cellphones was out of date.
At the same time, "Let me say up front that I get it," he told the House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," he said in prepared remarks.
"But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function," he said.
"I am painfully aware of the emotional response this proposal has triggered. Yet, I firmly believe that if we are serious about eliminating regulations which serve no purpose, the decision is clear," Wheeler said.
"If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid," Wheeler said. "It's that simple."
The FAA approved the use of all personal electronics below 10,000 feet in October, provided the devices remained on "airplane mode," meaning their wireless signals were disabled.