Many of you may recall a bit of scuttle this past December when the FCC voted to lift the cell phone ban on U.S. flights. Simultaneously, the Department of Transportation (DOT) challenged the decision and released a statement that DOT will determine if in-flight cell phone list will be fair to consumers.
A recent article by Mat Honan of Wired Magazine (unfortunately not yet available online for non-subscribers) lamented that we are about to lose the “last refuges from our always-on world: a big Internet black hole where you could legitimately say you couldn’t be reached.” The plane! In an age where people vacation with iPads, sneak a look at buzzing texts in church and keep their phones on all night because they double as alarms, the airplane may be one of the last true locations where we are forced to disconnect…until now.
But why? I found myself wondering. What’s changed? Well, according to this detailed Q&A, the original cell phone was large and clunky and easily interfered with cell towers that helped the pilots navigate. Today’s phones are much smaller and planes are much safer, so the signals are far less likely to interfere. Also, to solve the “no signal” problem while soaring high through the air, planes will install a picocell, a device that acts like a giant booster for cellular signals and will allow usage during the flight.
Worried about what a headache that redeye will be with Chatty Cathy in seat 24B? Never fear! Turns out very few people actually want to talk on their phones during flights – most just want access to their phones for texting and internet surfing (and, perhaps the ability to play Candy Crush for hours on end). The cool thing about the picocell is that airlines can use it to limit how you use your phone on a plane, literally turning off features such as voice call or texting. Lufthansa is already implementing this quite well. It will be interesting to see how different airlines embrace this as developments continue to unravel.
Congress was on board, as well, and in February passed a bill to ban all cellphone talking on flights with the suggestion to “tap, don’t talk.”
I think the next year will be interesting in terms of plane travel. I’ll of course pour one out for the last of the “offline havens” of present day, but as it is with everything social media, on to the next. Now – bring on the apps!