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WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation (DOT) will consider banning the use of cellphones for voice calls onboard airplanes, a reaction to widespread public outrage over a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to loosen the rules.

Together, the two developments mean that consumers soon will probably be able to text and connect to the Internet on their cellphones at 10,000 feet, but not to make voice calls.

The two agencies said they had heard and wanted to respect public outcry at the prospect of being stuck for hours in close quarters next to a person gabbing into a cellphone.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight, and I am concerned about this possibility as well,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

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The department will consider whether allowing in-flight voice calls “is fair to consumers” in part by soliciting widespread public comment on the issue.

The FCC voted 3-2 to go ahead with a measure to solicit comment on whether to repeal its technical rule that disallows the use of cellphones for any communications purpose once a flight is airborne. But all five commissioners say they share the public’s doubts about whether voice calls should be allowed.

“Let me make clear what’s going on here — nothing will be different on your flight tomorrow,” said Tom Wheeler, the new FCC chairman. “I don’t want to listen to the personal conversations and the business deals of a person sitting next to me on a flight.”

Wheeler and the agency were blindsided last month when their addition of an item on airborne cellphones to the agenda for the December meeting was met with a flood of phone calls and emails expressing outrage at the possibility.

“This is not a rule about usage,” Wheeler said. “This is a rule about technology, specifically new technology that now allows cellphones to be used aloft without interfering with on-the-ground wireless networks.”

The move is necessary, Wheeler said, given the commission’s statutory responsibilities. “If technology eliminates interference and therefore it eliminates the need for an interference-protection rule, then we ought to eliminate the rule.”

Carriers to allow unlocking phones

Wireless companies said they will let consumers use smartphones on any network after contracts expire, reversing what they called an essential component of their business model under the threat of U.S. regulation.

Carriers will notify customers when phones are eligible for unlocking, a term for altering software so devices can work on other providers’ networks, CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington-based trade group, said in a letter released today.

The changes will take effect within a year of formal adoption by association members, the group’s president, Steve Largent, said in the letter to Tom Wheeler, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

“Today’s commitment by wireless providers will provide consumers with more information about when, and how, to move their devices from one network to another compatible network,” Wheeler said in an emailed statement.

— Bloomberg News

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