Dear Mr. Wheeler: Americans pour their hearts out over in-flight cellphones

As the FCC's official comment period begins, hundreds of people have already weighed in

Like a nearby cellphone user with an annoying way of saying, "Helllloooo!" recently confirmed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has already hit a nerve.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's proposal to allow cellular services on airliners, advanced less than a month after Wheeler's confirmation in late October, had drawn more than 400 brickbats from wary citizens even before the official comment period began with its publication in the Federal Register on Wednesday. Submissions that came before the comment period still count.

Unlike most FCC issues, which tend to draw highly technical and legal arguments, the in-flight cellphone concept has kindled the passions -- and penmanship -- of many ordinary Americans.

"Dear FCC," begins one entry to Docket No. 13-301, received in the agency's mailroom on Dec. 23, "What better use of my extra Christmas card than to ask you to please use any influence you have, during the process of allowing cellular use on planes, to guide airlines towards allowing data but not voice use in flight. Thank you." Dave Moncjeau, who sent the card from Springvale, Maine, even wrote in "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas."

Other submissions are less cordial.

"Mr. Wheeler -- Phones on planes is a terrible idea. You must fly on private planes or first class in an enclosed pod. This is the dumbest idea ever!" Paul Geddes of Needham, Massachusetts, wrote on a memo pad before tearing it off and sending it in.

The FCC banned cellphones on planes in 1991 to prevent transmissions from the air from interfering with cellular networks on the ground, which weren't designed to handle calls from planes. What the agency is now proposing is to let passengers use their cellphones if there's a miniature cell tower on the plane. It would be up to airlines to decide whether passengers could use their phones for voice calls or just for texting and data services.

The early comments are overwhelmingly opposed to the concept. Most commenters only object to voice calling, though Nancy Greiff, of Portland, Oregon, is also worried about noise from text-message alerts. "Multiplied by maybe 140 cell phone owners on a flight and by a couple of texts per person, this would, in my view, be quite annoying," she wrote.

Though people can already make phone calls on crowded airliners in many other countries, supposedly with few problems, Americans have responded to the idea in ways that ought to restore faith not just in their handwriting and civic engagement, but even in their creative writing skills.

"Last week, while I was sitting on an airplane traveling internationally, squeezed in on all four sides by a seat designed by a midget who apparently had no legs (since there was no space for my legs in the area assigned to me), trying to balance the $4 bottle of water and micro-bag of tired pretzels ..." began a submission by Grant P. Thompson of Washington, D.C. Thompson was holding out hope that the plan was "some weird type of April Fools Day joke."

Then there are the hypotheticals.

"What's going to happen when mobile communications above ten thousand feet is allowed, and John Smith receives a phone call mid-flight from his wife of 23 years, Jane Smith, announcing that she wants a divorce?" asked Stephanie D. Zonis of Branchburg, N.J. "What's going to occur when busy advertising executive Ellen Jones receives a phone call mid-flight from her incompetent assistant, who has managed to screw up the big account she should have landed for her agency?" Zonis fears "air meltdown." "It may be rage, it may be hysteria, it might be a panic attack, or the other passengers could hit the trifecta from hell and have all three occur simultaneously."

For some, it's only a question of when the nightmare will hit.

"I do not want to get on a plane from Los Angeles to New York and listen to some 15-year-old whose parents have no better sense and allow their child to yap their face off for 5 hours in my ear ... which we all know is going to happen," wrote Christina L. Monde of Canyon Country, California.

Paul V. Sheridan of Dearborn, Michigan, accused Wheeler of "intrinsic inveracity" and "outright pusillanimity." Thomas J. Burch, of Albany, New York, concluded his comment with the word "NO" followed by the letter "O" 212 times.

There was even a refreshing dose of self-awareness, of the sort that would be welcome in many public situations.

"Short of having flight attendants who are already busy and overworked, how would one deal with folks -- like myself -- who have voices which are loud and project?" wrote Peter J. McKimmin, of San Diego. "I wouldn't want to come to me and ask me to lower my voice."

With the official public-comment clock ticking, scribes who haven't yet shared their thoughts have 30 days to do so. This will be followed by a 60-day period for responses. The agency has not forecast when it will come to a final decision.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Stephen Lawson

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