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"Gov. agencies concerned about efforts allowing use of mobile phones on airplanes"

July 15, 2005

Three U.S. government agencies have raised safety concerns regarding efforts allowing mobile phone calls on airplanes in flight.

Representatives from Qualcomm Inc. and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives have called on the U.S. government to approve mobile phone calls on flights. The association suggested mobile phone users on aircraft should use headsets, and it asked if voice calls are not allowed, that passengers be allowed to check e-mail and use text-messaging functions on their mobile phones.

Qualcomm has tested a mobile phone system with American Airlines using low-powered pico cells to improve mobile signals, finding there was no interference with airplane instrumentation. Verizon Communications Inc. is also testing an aircraft Wi-Fi system with United Air Lines Inc., which would potentially allow passengers to use voice-over-IP phones to make calls using an aircraft Wi-Fi system.

But, representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security told a House of Representatives subcommittee that allowing wireless systems could allow better coordination efforts among terrorists with cohorts on the ground, as well as being used by terrorists to remotely set off bombs in airplanes. According to the deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ's Criminal Division, Laura Parsky, “there are some who would use this technology for criminal and sometimes lethal purposes.”

The DOJ, despite their safety concerns, did not recommend that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission halt its current inquiry into mobile phone use on airplanes. The agency did recommend several safety mechanisms, however, including the ability to wiretap mobile calls by suspicious passengers and shut off all mobile phone calls at once. An official from the Federal Aviation Administration also told the House Committee on Transportation's Subcommittee on Aviation that the agency remained concerned about mobile phones interfering with aircraft navigation and other electronic systems.

Mobile phones are accidentally left on during dozens of U.S. flights each day, but so far, according to Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), no U.S. aircraft has ever found interference from phones. Poe questions the DOJ's concerns of mobile phone use related to terrorism, saying an outlaw on using phones would not deter a terrorist determined to turn one on. Although Parsky agreed with Poe, she also thinks that the newer technologies would allow a more reliable connection, making it easier for potential terrorist plans.

The subcommittee was also concerned about the use of mobile phone calls during flights becoming unpleasant for other passengers. The FCC launched an inquiry in December, and part of it will determine whether past concerns about mobile phone use interfering with ground-based mobile systems could be resolved.

Should the FCC approve the use of mobile phones on flights, the FAA will require that airlines approve specific devices, including models of mobile phones, for use on each model of airplane where they will be used, according to the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety. Some airlines may decide to continue the ban on in-flight mobile phone use even if approved by federal agencies.

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