Airplane Laptops Sí, Cellphones No!
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States have begun the process of authorizing the use of wireless devices in airplanes, including email and cellular telephones. The FCC has allocated the frequencies of the electro-magnetic spectrum for wireless communications between planes in the air and telephone networks on the ground.
Wireless devices are now prohibited in airplanes because the signals might interfere with the operation of the aircraft. That will change. The RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics) is testing the effects of wireless communications on the electronic instruments of airplanes.
Airplanes will provide safe wireless capability, just as places such as cafes now provide the service. Passengers would log into the airplane system, which would then connect the user to the ground networks via telephone satellite systems. It seems very likely that within a couple of years, passengers will be able to connect to the Internet and, if allowed, to use cellphones. Airbus is testing such a system in Europe, and plans to have it ready in 2006, while companies such as AirCell Inc. will produce these in the USA.
The policy question is whether cellphone use should be permitted, other than in an emergency, because it annoys the other passengers. The effects would depend on the cost of the service. It could be costly to provide the equipment, making it costly to use cellphones in the air, so perhaps only a small percentage of planes will have it, leaving passengers a choice between cellphone planes and plain planes.
But if it is cheap to provide the service, then we have a social issue. Cellphone users impose a negative external effect on those nearby. They often think they have to speak in a loud, high-pitched voice. In cafes, they often are not satisfied to annoy their immediate neighbors, but get up and walk around the entire cafe and interfere with everybody's reading, writing, thinking, or conversations. The custom now is to treat cellphone talkers like those having loud personal conversations, as a permitted negative externality.
But in a perfectly just world, that would not be the case. People would compensate others for significant negative effects on others. Just as the smoker would pay those around him for imposing unpleasant and unhealthy pollution, cellphone talkers would have to pay those around them for disrupting their lives with noise pollution. If I'm sitting in a cafe trying to write this article, I think a nearby loud cellphone user would fairly compensate me and anyone else affected for the loss of time by paying, say, 25 cents per minute of talk to each victim.
In a pure free market, the owner of space has authority over its use. The owner of a cafe or the members of a club that provide wireless services would decide on the cellphone rules. In a cafe, there is a remedy usually available for those annoyed by loud talkers; they can move to another table or leave the cafe. But in an airplane, especially when full, one cannot exit or move to another seat.
If wireless services become common, perhaps the airplanes could have a section for cellphone use, such as in the back of the airplane. They could also in effect have a charge for the externality by making cellphone users pay an extra charge, beyond the physical cost, and reduce the price for the non-cellphone users, in effect compensating them. If the cellphone users feel they have to walk up and down the isle in order to talk better, they would pay a stiff surcharge.
Or perhaps there could be non-cellphone flights that have a surcharge to avoid the annoyance. Either way would be efficient, as theorized by the economist Ronald Coase in his Coase theorem on externalities. Either the annoyance is eliminated, or else compensated.
My personal preference would be for an airplane that has wireless service, so I could connect with the Internet, but prohibits cellphone use, so I would be able to read and write email in peace and quiet. I would be willing to pay extra for this luxury.
I say, laptops sí, cellphones no!
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2004 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
Also see this earlier Foldvary editorial:
The Policy Impact of Technology As It Affects Costs
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