Quit the red-herring freakout over cellphone reception on planes and subways

January 16, 2014
Obsession
Mobile Web
January 16, 2014

“The Shactman Family wishes to inform that we will fly no airline that has unlimited cell phone access,” wrote Alan Schactman in a letter (pdf) to the Federal Communications Commission in November. “We have timesharing in the Caribbean and in anticipation of such a decision, we would sell the timesharing and stay within the U.S.”

Among those protesting a proposal to allow cellphone use on flights in the United States, the Shactmans are perhaps the most extreme. But their sentiment is widely shared: 59% of Americans said they opposed the plan in a recent poll.

Yet the freakout over in-flight calling—and similar anxiety over cellphone reception in urban subway systems—is misplaced.

First of all, two major airlines, Delta and Southwest, have already signaled that they won’t allow passengers to make calls from the sky. Their rivals will undoubtedly follow suit if the FCC goes forward. No one wants a cabin full of gabbing. It’s not going to happen.

More to the point, the proposed new rules aren’t really about making phone calls. They’re about data.

Smartphone owners are making fewer calls while data usage explodes. They are using their phones to browse the web, stream music or movies, and swap messages and selfies with their friends. This trend was already obvious in 2010, when a New York Times feature declared, “Cellphones Now Used More for Data Than for Calls.” (Yet today, the Times suggests that cellphone use on the New York City subways would break “the relative peace of a subway ride.”)

To get a sense of what connected transit would really be like, just visit Seoul, which is a bit like visiting the future: The entire subway system is outfitted with Wi-Fi and cellular reception. (You can even pick up TV signals on specially equipped phones.) The Seoul subway is as tranquil as any in the world: Lots of passengers are immersed in their phablets, but on a visit last year, I didn’t hear a single person making a call.

If the FCC or New York’s transit agency open up to cellular, allowing more people to get even more lost in their phones, the result will, if anything, be quieter trips. Just like the good old days…

Newspapers on train

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