Testing of radio technology happens all the time, but only on rare occasions are the results publicized. Rarer still is when the wireless industry is focused on a test that doesn’t happen.

But that’s exactly what happened last week, when the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections cancelled a scheduled demonstration of a cell-phone jamming solution from CellAntenna in a local jail. Although CTIA, the trade association for the cellular industry, asked an appeals court to stop the demonstration, the legal maneuver became unnecessary when the D.C. government decided to halt the demonstration.

For the most part, those in the radio and wireless industries generally breathed a sigh of relief. To say that jamming is hot-button topic in this sector is an understatement; after all, it’s tough enough to build wireless systems that overcome interference from unintended sources, much less systems that deliberately jam signals. Internet blogs flatly described CellAntenna’s jamming technology as criminal.

But CellAntenna CEO Howard Melamed said such depictions are inaccurate, noting that the FCC approved the demonstration—a request made by the D.C. Department of Corrections, not CellAntenna—although Melamed contends agency approval was not needed. Meanwhile, fears expressed by CTIA that the jamming signal would spread beyond the correctional facility and interfere with legitimate communications were misguided, because the CellAntenna solution “surgically” jams in a specific area, he said.

“We’ve done it already in South Carolina, and we proved it—the FCC didn’t get one complaint,” Melamed said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “The radio stations and TV stations [covering the event] saw that they were able to use their cell phones immediately, as soon as they walked out the door, while we were jamming on the inside. And all the guards were able to use their [LMR] walkie-talkies and Nextel phones.”

Melamed was quick to note that CellAntenna also could jam Sprint Nextel’s iDEN signal—or even just specific channels on the network—without harming LMR communications, including those utilizing spectrum interleaved with the iDEN system. The company has demonstrated this capability in a separate test, but Melamed said he could not disclose the location of that demonstration.

The reason correctional facilities are considering jamming technologies is to stop inmates from using contraband cell phones to conduct criminal business from behind bars. While cell phones are illegal for inmates—in fact, most correctional facilities even prohibit their employees from carrying them on site—a variety of creative methods are used to put them in the hands of inmates, Melamed said.

“Remember, it’s illegal to bring drugs, guns and knives into prisons, but they find ways--if there’s money involved, then there’s a way to bring these things in,” he said. “Cell phones are more profitable than drugs in prisons today.”

Specifically, Melamed said a $30 prepaid cell phone can be sold in prison for $1500 to $2500. By utilizing CellAntenna’s jamming solution—a distributed antenna system that also can be used to strengthen in-building LMR coverage—the phones could not be used, so the black market would disappear quickly, he said.

For now, contraband cell phones remain a problem for correctional facilities. Melamed claims that U.S. cellular carriers make $2 billion per year in what he calls “prison minutes”—an assertion he claims is the real motive behind CTIA’s objections to CellAntenna’s demonstration efforts.

“To me, the $2 billion or so dollars that they’re making from prison inmates—which is disgusting, by the way—is what’s driving this whole thing. This is about greed.”

While Melamed said he has been told that his $2 billion figure for wireless is conservative, CTIA spokesman Joe Farren expressed serious doubt.

“I don’t know where he [Melamed] got that number,” Farren said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “There isn’t such a number, and that sounds bizarre.

“[Prison] traffic is not one that we’ve ever tried to consider. Even if someone were to try to tally, it’s so small it doesn’t make noise in the system. No one has done that study, and no one intends to do that study, but that traffic is miniscule, for sure.”

Melamed expressed disgust that wireless carriers would object to strategic jamming in correctional facilities when contraband cell phones are such a problem, claiming that they are preventing law enforcement from doing its job.

“It would be like the companies that manufacture bullets telling the law-enforcement agencies that they can’t buy bullet-proof vests,” he said.

Many wireless-industry professionals are concerned that allowing jamming by state and local governments—several federal agencies are allowed to use the technology—would open a Pandora’s Box of jamming issues. But Melamed notes that other countries in the world allow jamming and that the U.S. allows the importation of jamming equipment from other parts of the globe.

While the D.C. episode has been settled for the moment, the larger issue of jamming isn’t expected to disappear, something CTIA’s Farren acknowledged.

“CellAntenna has made clear their interest in pursuing these tests, and the FCC has also indicated its interest in [approving such tests], so we’ll take each circumstance as it arises,” he said.

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