With the roar of 1,400 people ringing in its ears, the Federal Communications Commission can now decide whether to allow cellular service on planes.
The deadline was Friday for comments about lifting a 1991 ban on airborne cellular service. Opposition was nearly unanimous, with messages ranging from hand-scrawled diatribes to multipage rants.
"This is the worst idea ever," wrote John Simpson of San Francisco. "It is already bad enough with people talking on their phones everywhere but most of the time one can move away from the idiot; on a plane you are stuck."
Frank Wake of Anchorage told the commission, "This is a very bad idea." If the ban is lifted, Wake said, it will become "cruel and unusual torture for those of us trapped."
But a relative handful of respondents supported cellular service. Thomas Elsner of Wheaton, Ill., said allowing more mobile networks on flights would drive down Internet costs and provide better service than the current Wi-Fi networks.
"But most important, this would give the power back to the consumers," Elsner wrote.
Now the FCC must review the comments and could vote to lift the 1991 ban on cellular service, which was created to avoid jamming ground stations. No schedule is set for taking action.
"The staff is going to go through the reply comments and the docket to see if they can discern a consensus or a possible consensus," said Angela Giancarlo, a former FCC staffer who is now a partner at Mayer Brown law firm in D.C. "On a good day, no one is surprised by the outcome."
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told a House panel that he wanted to lift the ban during 2014 because the rationale for the rule doesn't exist any more.
The process now is for commission staffers to review all of the comments and determine whether to draft an order for the commission to vote on.The commission could also hold an educational meeting with technical advisors, but nothing has been scheduled yet. The review could take months, but there is no firm timetable.
Even if the FCC lifts its ban, the Transportation Department is expected to regulate cell service aboard planes. The department already collected 1,774 of its own comments in preparation for rule-making.
Flight attendants, for example, are strongly opposed to allowing calls. Some airlines have said they wouldn't allow calls, even if the ban is lifted, while others said they would consider it.
Congress is also mulling legislation to block calls on planes. The House Transportation Committee approved a bill to ban phone calls on plans, and similar legislation was introduced in the Senate.
But FCC approval of cell service isn't assured. The 3-2 majority that agreed in December to gather comments includes a commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, who doesn't support allowing phone calls on planes.
The 4,000 comments, mostly negative, have been posted, but the FCC hasn't yet posted last-minute filings from industry groups that requested the extended comment period: AeroMobile, which provides cellular service on planes in the Europe and the Middle East; manufacturer Panasonic Avionics Corp. and CTIA-The Wireless Association.
In an earlier filing, CTIA said its companies are eager to provide mobile service to their customers that follows all FAA rules and airline policies.