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The Sky's the Limit

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There’s a great scene in the opening few moments of the very first episode of TV show The West Wing.  White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler is on a plane when he receives a message from the cockpit informing him that the President has just ridden his bicycle into a tree.  Getting out his phone, he is advised by a flight attendant that he can’t use it until they’re on the ground.  His response is as follows:

“We're flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L1011. It came off the line 20 months ago. It carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?”

It’s a scenario that many of us have pondered - surely, surely, the technology now exists that will allow us to use our mobile phones in the air, without causing the plane to land in Beirut instead of Birmingham?

Well, a few days ago the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spoke about how the technology does exist, and their current ban should be looked at.

The technology has been around for a good long while, it’s just that legislation hasn’t caught up with it.  And this is the point that the FCC are making.

The announcement comes on the back of a recent relaxation of internet usage in the sky in Europe– airlines are now permitted to allow their passengers to use 3G and 4G, except during take-off and landing.

Though FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has declared that the notion of making calls on your phone will ‘open new mobile opportunities for consumers', he has confessed to be personally opposed to the idea… as have a lot of people. 

There is currently a petition on the White House website asking the Obama government to nip this in the bud.  Though allowing electronics throughout the flight was acknowledged as a ‘wonderful move’, the FCC has apparently gone ‘too far’ in this instance: “Forcing them [passengers] to listen to the inane, loud, private, personal conversations of a stranger is perhaps the worst idea the FCC has come up with to date.”

If the FCC recommendation does go ahead and the legislation is updated, it will still be up to the airlines themselves as to whether they want to allow their passengers to use mobile phones on their flights.

I can think of one of two airlines that might see a commercial advantage and charge their passengers to use this facility, or perhaps pay extra for a ‘silent flight’ (*cough Ryanair *cough)

But I can understand the reasoning behind the objections.  Proximity on planes is already an issue thanks to the ever present irony of sitting behind that person who just ‘has’ to recline their seat at the first opportunity, and of course the always fun ‘armrest war’. 

Throw a mobile into the mix, and there’s no corridor or quiet coach to go into to make that call.  Everybody will be in on the conversation.

I’m sure most people have been in a similar situation on trains – it’s a Sunday night and you’re desperately trying to get home, when somebody who has remarkably little knowledge of the projection of their own voice, carries on a highly personal conversation about how so and so has stirred up the hornet’s nest by telling everyone ‘the secret’.

The only way you get through it is to try and see the funny side (I’ve witnessed a few people turn to Twitter and publish the highlights of the conversation, soap style, to keep themselves and their followers entertained).

Imagine that, but within a much more confined space, for a longer period time, with no escape…not seeing the funny side any longer.  And if you forget your earplugs, it’s enough to make you want to get out and swim to your destination.

So, should the technology that allows you to use your mobile in the air be put into hibernation? 

Well, the issue shouldn’t be ‘shall we or shan’t we?’  Because actually, we don’t really need it at all…

The novel work has already been done by allowing electronic equipment to be connected to the internet and used by passengers mid-flight.  By extending this to all flights, this would be a far more effective use of technology.

Mobile data lets us communicate with each other like never before, and in many different ways.  Instant messaging, Lync, unified communications… we don’t need ‘voice’ to communicate with each other over distance any more (or over the dining room table, come to think of it, though that might not be particularly a good thing).

So why the push for the allowance of phone calls is being made now, I’m not so sure.  In an emergency, I guess it would be beneficial to use your mobile from the air.  But then again, in theory, you could do this anyway by using Skype.

The technology which would open up the airwaves for voice calls is largely redundant, due to the emergence of mobile data.  Though the issue of usage etiquette probably still needs addressing…

Technology is all about doing things more efficiently and improving experiences.  By using data in the skies you are being more productive, and whilst the same could be said about making voice calls, you're certainly not improving anyone's experience.

Let me know what you think on this subject by adding your comments below.

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