Corrected: February 12, 2009

Amid the maelstrom created by the cell-phone jamming debate, a Columbia, Md., company is offering a middle-ground solution to the problem of jail prisoners using contraband cell phones to conduct business. Tecore said its Intelligent Network Access Controller (INAC), which is based on technology already deployed by commercial operators, can be used to restrict callers in confined environments without using the controversial jamming equipment.

Cell-phone jamming has been in the news in recent months as prisons consider solutions to stop the use of such devices that often are smuggled in and used by inmates to traffic drugs, arrange murders—or to just gab for hours. Some prisons want to deploy jamming equipment to block the signal of cell phones in a particular area, but the practice is illegal and is strongly opposed by the cellular industry because jamming can interfere with other communications signals nearby.

The D.C. Department of Corrections planned to stage a cell-phone jamming demonstration last month but cancelled it after the Cellular Telecommunication & Internet Association (CTIA), the trade association that represents the commercial mobile carrier industry, opposed the FCC’s approval of the demonstration and took the matter to a federal appeals court to block it.

Tecore, however, has begun publicizing its INAC solution as a way to offer selective communications restriction on the fly across various wireless operator networks by classifying users into categories; users are then allowed to access the commercial network or prohibited on a case-by-case basis.

“When an operator deploys our solution, it provides an RF umbrella within a given area, and when the cell phone enters, it registers with the network to enable access,” said Casey Joseph, chief technology officer with Tecore. “We’ve reversed that logic so that if someone comes in, and we don’t know who they are, they will lock on to our system but we won’t process them to the macro network unless their phone is approved to operate on it.”

Joseph added that the RF coverage environment is set up carefully enough so as not to impact users on the outside.

An added benefit, said Joseph, is the ability to allow calls to go through on a subscriber-by-subscriber basis, which supports CALEA capabilities. For instance, if a warden wants to monitor a prisoner’s conversation, INAC can be set to allow that specific signal reach its intended destination.

Other candidates for such a solution might be military bases, embassies and banks in order to ward off terrorist attacks triggered by cell phones, Joseph said.

The solution has been deployed in the U.S. already, and several government agencies in various countries have request proposals for IntelliNAC. However, it's use in the U.S. may require some regulatory changes going forward. Government agencies seeking to use the system would need to work out agreements to share spectrum with carriers, Joseph said.

"The debate heretofore has been around the black-and-white approach of jamming," said Amit Mahotra, vice president of marketing with Tecore. "In the case of our installation, it was a case-specific evaluation and approval, based on the urgent need of the community and problems associated with the initial use of jamming. I believe that the overall regulatory framework will be built upon a number of such specific cases."

“For the phones out there today, we are basically transmitting in each of the operators’ spectrum, setting up that coverage,” Joseph said.