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Cellphone chats at 35,000 feet? US considers legalizing them on airline flights.

The move could come next year, the FCC says, but airlines would set their own policies on their use.

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Hold on - fasten your seat belts, and put those tray tables up: Come May, the Federal Communications Commission plans to auction off some of the last remaining spectrum to companies that want to provide cellphone service at 35,000 feet.

While polls show the vast majority of Americans are opposed to in-air phone chatter - almost 70 percent in some surveys - technological innovations and market forces appear to be moving the nation's regulatory framework toward approving it. The FCC has said it could allow the service as early as next year. The Federal Aviation Administration has signaled that as long as airlines are confident it poses no safety threat, it would be in favor of lifting the ban as well.

Yet those who cherish cellphone-free flying sanctuaries still have hope. A study published this month found that - counter to what many Americans believe - cellphone radio signals do "present a clear and present danger" by interfering with sensitive navigational equipment.

"We're not trying to be alarmist, but we are saying, 'Let's just go slow to be sure there is no danger,' " says Granger Morgan, a coauthor of the study and head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

He and a colleague are the first to have actually measured the level of radio waves on 37 flights. Their findings were surprising. On average, one to four passengers use a cellphone on each flight, despite regulations forbidding it. And the signals emitted did cross over into the spectrum used by the Global Positioning Satellite systems that many planes use. While the interference was "random, sometimes hit or miss," says Professor Morgan, it was significant enough to cause problems when landing.


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