What’s the true story about airborne cellphone use?
It is a violation of FCC rules and regulations to use a cell phone, or even have it turned on, in an aircraft when it is not on the ground. The reason is that multiple cell towers will attempt to link up with the same phone, and it will cause interference to others who are already talking. This is an FCC issue not an FAA issue.
Here is the actual wording of the FCC regulation:
[Code of Federal Regulations] [Title 47, Volume 2] [Revised as of October
From the U.S. Government Printing Office via GPO Access [CITE:
47CFR22.925] [Page 189]
TITLE 47–TELECOMMUNICATION CHAPTER I–FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION
(CONTINUED) PART 22–PUBLIC MOBILE SERVICES–Table of Contents Subpart
H–Cellular Radiotelephone Service
Sec. 22.925 Prohibition on airborne operation of cellular telephones.
Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off. The following notice must be posted on or near each cellular telephone installed in any aircraft: “The use of cellular telephones while this aircraft is airborne is prohibited by FCC rules, and the violation of this rule could result in suspension of service and/or a fine. The use of cellular telephones while this aircraft is on the ground is subject to FAA regulations.”
The FCC regulations are unambiguous. The FAA regulations are less so. There have been many articles on this subject in the major aviation-related periodicals, including discussions with FAA representatives. The apparent concensus thus far, regarding the FAA, is that the final authority regarding aircraft cellphone use rests with the Pilot In Command. The PIC is responsible for assuring an absence of interference and continued safe aircraft operation.
The reason most often cited for the FCC regulation banning airborne use is cell conflict. I have read a great many discussions on this topic. The most knowledgeable people, close to the industry, have convinced me that this is a bogus issue for low-altitude aircraft operation. While it sounds plausible at first blush, since radio range typically increases with altitude, we often operate our planes at altitudes that are lower than the altitude where millions of people live. For example, ninety percent of East Coast light plane operation probably occurs at an altitude lower than that at which most of the northwest quadrant of the country lives. Modern cell system equipment easily deals with both the concurrent cell access issue as well as the transfer speed issue. These days practically all cellphones are concurrently within range of multiple cells, which negotiate the best solution.
Another aspect of airborne cell system usage, seldom mentioned, is the antenna orientation (and related signal transmission orientation). Cell signals are oriented horizontally; even more so than television or AM-FM radio signals. If you are flying at an altitude well above that where most people live, you probably will not be able to access a cell system. That might change if you are very close to a tower, but the chances of maintaining a connection for the length of a call is very small, if you are much higher than 4,000-5,000 feet. In fact, if you are not relatively near a community of some size, you are unlikely to be able to get cellphone service even at very low altitude (or in a car).
Please don’t take this to mean that I am advocating breaking the FCC rule. Having said that, I would not hesitate to try to use a cellphone in flight during an emergency. One example might be loss of power in IMC, and discovering you can hear on a handheld, but others cannot hear you. You can try to call an approach facility and request a Ground Controlled Approach, wherein the controller can give you altitude and heading instructions, via radio or even the phone, to guide you to a safe landing when you can’t divert to VMC conditions.
And finally, to my knowledge, no one has yet been able to identify a single case in which the FCC (or the FAA) has pursued an enforcement action against even known and obvious instances of airborne use of cellphones. While I’m not a spokesman (nor an apologist) for either organization, it is almost a certainty that neither one wants to waste resources on non-issues. I suspect that the FCC is well aware that the technological aspects that drove the original prohibition have been overcome. And the FAA rarely pursues any enforcement action unless some external factor forces the issue (like an incident or accident, or some official complaint or flagrant violation).