Why Can't We Use Cell Phones On Planes?

The consumer electronics industry is "such a dynamic industry, where technology evolves seemingly daily," but the aviation industry is "where things progress very cautiously," he said. "Where those two technology worlds come together is the potential for problems."

It's difficult for avionics experts to keep up with the fast-moving consumer electronics industry and test all of the newest gadgets.

But Carson said his committee, which comprises regulators, airline representatives and academics, has been looking at the technology behind the devices to test how different classes of consumer devices could interfere with aircraft equipment.

Although consumer electronics, such as cell phones, are supposed to operate within bands of the electromagnetic spectrum away from aviation bands, Carson said technology doesn't always behave the way it's supposed to.

"Spurious emissions," for example, he said, could interfere with crucial on-board navigational and communications systems. But, he said, during a flight, even smaller disturbances -- such as smoke alarms activating because of cell phone interference -- could have more serious consequences.

"The simplistic approach doesn't get you the safety the American public deserves," he said.

But, both the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission oversee the use of cell phones on airplanes. And contrary to what most passengers think, it's the FCC – not the FAA – that implemented the cell phone ban in the first place.

Safety Not the Only Issue

It's true that before an airline could allow cell phone use in-flight, it would have to prove to the FAA that it wouldn't interfere with the airplane systems. But the FAA says the point is moot.

"As far as the wireless system goes, the final authority rests with the FCC," Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman told ABCNews.com.

Since 1991, the FCC has banned the use of cell phones on airplanes because of potential interference with ground networks.

When you use your cell phone in Times Square, for example, the phone searches for the closest cell towers and, assuming you're in a place with good coverage, it doesn't have to work too hard to complete a call.

But, when you use your phone on an airplane, thousands of feet above the cell towers and moving 500 miles per hour, the phone and the network, essentially, get confused. Too many cell towers and too many channels are available to a single phone at a given time.

In addition to opening up the possibility for interrupted calls and other problems on the ground, the phone emits a stronger signal that both drains the battery and increases the possibility of interference with on-board equipment.

Technology like OnAir's uses a picocell to try to re-create a ground situation in air. The picocell acts like a mini cell tower that enables phones on the plane and towers on the ground to interact normally.

But despite technology that could address this outstanding network issue, the FCC stands by its ban.

"Certainly with advances in technology, it's something that the FCC may reconsider," Rob Kenny, an FCC spokesman told ABCNews.com. "But first and foremost, we need to find ways to negate harmful interference to airplanes' navigation and communications systems."

Additionally, he said, that when the FCC proposed lifting the ban in December 2004, it was flooded with thousands of comments from individuals, companies and associations in favor of the ban.

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