UP IN THE AIR(WAVES)

We return today to the question of whether it's safe to operate wireless devices, in general, on commercial airliners (see our earlier comments here). With the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set to auction off radio spectrum to enable in-flight wireless communications on May 10, the issue has piqued increasing public interest, as well as spirited debate among technology professionals.

According to the FCC, its Auction No. 65 will award licenses to the highest bidders for nationwide commercial air-ground radiotelephone services in the 800-MHz band. The licenses will be offered in three band plans: two overlapping, shared, cross-polarized 3-MHz licenses; an exclusive 3-MHz license and an exclusive 1-MHz one; and an exclusive 1-MHz license and an exclusive 3-MHz one. The configurations are mutually incompatible. The plan that receives the highest aggregate bids is the one that will be implemented.

This will toss the ball to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for approval. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last week (which relied heavily on our content), the FAA has hired the non-profit technical advisory body RTCA (the former Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics) to study the issue and file a formal report by December. A spokesperson for the RTCA committee told the Journal that the report will likely outline requirements for supporters to prove the safety of onboard electronic devices.

The Journal article specifically cites our feature on the topic, "Unsafe at Any Airspeed?", to emphasize the tricky nature of the technical questions involved. The Carnegie-Mellon scientists who penned our summary of their in-flight research pointed to the phenomenon of intermodulation as being a hazard that must be overcome before critical cockpit instrumentation, such as GPS transceivers, can be secured from possible interference from passenger devices in the cabin. New onboard pico-cell antennas allow cellphones and wireless units to operate at low power levels, with correspondingly lower levels of interference. However, until the RTCA study findings are complete, we still won't know just how much of a reduction of risk we can count on from pico-cell technology.

In the meantime, we are caught in the middle. Various commercial operators, such as Lufthansa and American Airlines, have already run successful test programs for wireless services in flight. And it would seem that the traveling public (especially business fliers) would readily embrace the convenience of using their BlackBerrys and Treos as they approach their destinations. But conventional wisdom may be wrong in this instance.

"Of 8000 comments to the FCC when it proposed dropping its ban, only two or three were in favor," the Journal article reports. "The rest, except for the 50 or so technical reports, were from travelers vociferously opposed, arguing that airplanes should be a refuge from calls and emails. Flight attendant unions are also opposed, fearing obnoxious phone habits could lead to air-rage incidents."

Moreover, we asked Spectrum Online readers earlier this month what you thought about the issue, and your response was overwhelmingly negative. Answering the question "Is it safe to use cellphones and wireless devices on airliners?" in our "Your Opinion" poll, only 251 of you thought it was safe. A whopping 468 readers voted unsafe. And 384 more cast their ballots for the "needs further study" option.

As we wrote in this month's "Spectral Lines" editorial: "Like it or not, wireless technology will soon become a permanent feature of aircraft cabins"; however, "we believe the current ban should be kept in place while data are collected and analyzed and while the technical issues surrounding the setup of these networks in the air are sorted out." It's unquestionably a very small price to pay to ensure our safety.

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