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

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Wed, January 15, 2014

IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau) — 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.

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