Can You Hear Me Now at 30,000 Ft?

By Robert McGarvey

Voice calls are coming to airplanes – rather they are coming back.

Loud – protesting – voices are getting raised but, really, this is progress, baby, and it won’t be derailed by people with no memory of history.

First: here’s why I am convinced we will soon be permitted to make voice calls inflight.  The US Department of Transportation has issued a proposed rule to protect passengers “from being unwillingly exposed to voice calls on aircraft.”

DoT is not seeking a ban on such calls. Quite the contrary.  What DoT is seeking is “to require airlines and ticket agents to disclose in advance to consumers if the carrier operating their flight allows passengers to make voice calls using mobile wireless devices.”

The Federal Communications Commission, by the way, has sway over cellphones’ cellular radios and the FCC continues to ban voice calls inflight.

DoT is looking instead at WiFi calling – available via Skype, Google Voice, What’s App, many more apps, also T-Mobile and at least some other cellular carriers.  Said DoT: “As technologies advance, the cost of making voice calls may decrease and the quality of voice call service may increase.”

Meantime, the big air carriers have been pushing WiFi providers – mainly GoGo – to up their game.  There is every indication that will happen and, truth is, WiFi calling with What’s App, Skype, et. al. is not bandwidth intensive anyway.  Skype, for instance, says the minimum bandwidth for voice calling is 30kbps. It recommends 100kbps.  That is not a high hurdle.

DoT admitted that the last time it raised the topic of inflight voice calls – in 2014 – the people spoke and they weren’t happy.  “In February 2014, the Department had issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) regarding the use of mobile wireless devices for voice calls on commercial aircraft.  In response to the ANPRM, a substantial majority of individual commenters expressed opposition to voice calls on the grounds that they are disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.”

This ire puzzles me.  I recall getting a call from a business associate who was inflight in the mid 1980s.  He was using Airfone – the inflight system birthed by John Goeken, founder of MCI. It debuted in the early 1980s and was still in at least some planes until 2006.

Airfone never enjoyed much use.  We all saw the phones – usually in the seatback of the middle seat in coach; in every seatback up front. But high prices – in 2006 calls cost $3.99 plus $4.99 per minute – seemed to stall usage.

Publicist Richard Laermer in fact said the price of an Airfone call was why the service triggered few complaints. “With Airfone, it was so expensive you made it and hung up.”

He’s right. Airfone calls generally were minimalist.

Laermer said that won’t be so with WiFi calling.  “The Wifi calls are going to be ‘Hey. Hi. Just calling to see how you are.’ And that’s going to eat people up inside. It’s bad enough listening to someone drone on and on with their seatmate, but to listen to half a conversation will start a revolution in the air. I think this is a very bad idea. Coming from someone who travels every week…it’s going to cause people to start knocking phones out of people’s hands.”

San Diego PR executive Antoinette Kuritz said similar: “For many of us, plane time is time to read, relax, disconnect.  Others are prepping for the meetings to come when they land.  Then there are those who nap.  The chatter rampant cell phone use will allow makes all of that impossible.  We will be subjected to the often inane one-sided conversations of those who need to display their connectivity to others.”

I can’t disagree with those who wish phones would stay off planes.

But here’s the deal: Satellite phone calling already is available on at least some flights

Then, too, WiFi calling already is happening inflight. Yes, the air carriers and their WiFi providers seek to block access to the known WiFi calling services such as Skype. But the Internet is ever inventive and new services multiply like cockroaches in a New York tenement.  A whispered reality is that calling already is happening, maybe mainly in hushed tones inside a locked bathroom.

My belief: inflight calling will come to airplanes, probably by 2020, very possibly via captive services and with high tariffs involved.  It’s unlikely that carriers – who seek to shake a dime out of every passenger interaction – would let this opportunity pass.

Couldn’t it still be an annoyance? You bet. That’s why frequent flyer Andy Abramson has said for this to work, there will have to be guidelines monitoring when calls can be made and more. His list – which includes a ban on profanity – is here.

Abramson also wants no calling rows so those who want silence can find it.

Read Abramson’s suggestions because – bet on this – calling is coming to planes.

There might even be a plus in this for all of us, whether we personally make and receive calls at 30,000 ft. or not.  If enough revenue comes in from calling, the carriers just may – really – seek real upgrades in inflight WiFi.  And that is something I can applaud.

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