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CTIA: Ground Airline Cell Phone Use

Wireless airline phone service is an idea whose time is not quite here, the nation's primary cell phone association said Thursday. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should move in an "extremely cautious fashion" on the issue.

In December, the FCC decided to proceed with plans for a proposed auction of 4MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band for airline broadband service. At the same time, the agency opened another proceeding seeking public comment on airborne cell phone use.

The decision caused a national flap that spanned from somber editorial-page postures to late-night talk show monologues. And many media outlets conducted public polls on the idea.

Thursday, the CTIA weighed in and said current rules prohibiting cell phone use on airplanes should not be relaxed "unless and until it is demonstrated that such action would not cause harmful interference with existing terrestrial wireless services."

"The wireless industry remains concerned about potential interference from airborne wireless usage, and until those concerns are met, we encourage the commission to examine this issue further and obtain more information on technical solutions to terrestrial interference," CTIA president and CEO Steve Largent said in a statement.

In a filing with the FCC, the CTIA indicated that currently "no solution" exists that safeguards terrestrial wireless services against interference.

"While the industry recognizes the consumer demand for wireless service anytime, anywhere -- even while airborne -- we believe it is more important to ensure wireless networks on the ground, serving more than 182 million consumers, continue operating without interference," Largent said.

In a January interview with internetnews.com, Largent said he was convinced there is consumer demand for airline broadband service, but "there's a lot more consternation about sitting on an airplane for three, four or five hours listening to somebody else's phone conversation."

Largent also addressed the technical problems during the interview.

"You can imagine the technological hurdles you have to get over in order to make that happen: shooting radio frequency from the top of an airplane and bounce it off a satellite and bounce it back down to earth and get it to somebody while you're at 30,000 feet above the ground moving at 600 mph," he said.

To clear the 800MHz spectrum for auction, the FCC also granted Verizon Airfone, the sole current operator in the band, a non-renewable, five-year license with narrowband restrictions.

According to the FCC, the reduced spectrum for the incumbent air-ground carrier is sufficient for maintaining current levels since the spectrum was originally allocated for six carriers.

"Our rules for the 800MHz commercial air-ground service have been locked in a narrowly defined technological and regulatory box and have kept passengers from using their wireless devices on planes," then FCC Chairman Michael Powell said. "Nearly every party in the air-ground proceeding has commented that the existing band plan and our rules have hindered the provision of services that are desired by the public."