12/11/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

Hush: Why Cell Phones Won't Spoil the Friendly Skies

Like virtually every other commentator I've read or person I've talked to, the thought of flying next to someone loudly conversing at length on their phone causes steam to come out my ears. I would not fly an airline that allowed such behavior, and I'm hardly alone.

That said, to those who love our laptops, tablets and smartphones and the uber-connectivity central to our modern, connected lives, newly installed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should be welcomed as a conquering hero for taking up the cause of more inflight freedom.

While we won't actually see the FCC's proposal until Thursday, the glare of the media spotlight has been intense and distorting. Headlines claiming the FCC is about to transform airline cabins into NASDAQ trading floors lose sight of the essential and wholly positive nuances of the actual decision at hand.

The FCC's task is a narrow and technical one: It is to determine, from an engineering perspective, if more expansive in-flight wireless services interfere with mobile network operations on the ground. The threat of such interference was the basis for the "cellphones off" rule we live under today. The FCC is now appropriately proposing to examine whether modern mobile technology might adequately address this concern. The FCC also reportedly will invite comment on safety issues within its jurisdiction and coordinate with the FAA as agency with primary responsibility for inflight safety.

Does the FCC have the authority and expertise to make this technical determination? Yes. Does it or should it have the authority to ban speech that is deemed--even widely--annoying? No.

That question is one of culture, and the FCC is rightly acknowledging that's dangerous ground for government. As one recent agency missive bluntly put it, "we are not the Federal Manners Commission, nor should we be."

I believe this decision, once final, will be a poster-child for how to balance an appropriate role for government with the power of consumer choice to police the marketplace--particularly when it comes to innovation where rapid change is constant.

Contrary to popular hand-wringing, the FCC's decision would not subject a single air traveler to a loud-talking seatmate. The decision of how, when, and where phones can be used will be left to the airlines. Judging from the resounding perspective of consumers on every travel blog and news talk show I've observed, heaven help the airline that turns its fleet into a clucking chicken coop in the sky.

Leading airlines have been quietly polling their customers. By a fairly consistent 2:1 margin, the flying public is emphatic that silence is golden. MBAs who make their living selling airline tickets know to take heed. So there's good reason--and good precedent--to believe peace and quiet will prevail.

Dozens of countries have taken this step before us. Airlines in these parts of the world approach the issue in a variety of ways--from banning voice calls either all the time or at night to limiting the number and/or length of calls. At Congress' behest, the FAA looked into the outcomes of these policies. According to the 2012 study, there have been no reports of mile-high melees, with coach descending into a scrum of passengers and portable devices. In these countries, in-flight texting and data use are far and away the most popular services, and voice calls--where permitted--are typically costly, brief and rare.

More broadly, this action speaks volumes about the promise of the new FCC Chairman's leadership style. His ready grasp of technology, data-driven discipline, preference for narrow regulation with strong deference to consumer choice and his keen sense of what matters to the mobile public (disconnecting only at times of our own choosing) all make for a promising debut--right out of the proverbial gate.


Mobile Future Chair Jonathan Spalter, a technology executive and former senior federal government national security official, leads a coalition of technology companies/stakeholders dedicated to increasing investment and innovation in the burgeoning U.S. wireless sector.