The controversy over cell-phone jamming in prisons took another turn this past week as the Senate Commerce Committee held hearings on whether the practice should be allowed.

Meanwhile, Tecore Networks says it has been making progress with its intelligent Network Access Controller (iNAC), which can be used to restrict callers in confined environments without using the controversial jamming equipment.

The Senate panel is considering a bill, sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), that would allow prisons to apply for and receive permission to jam signals. They would have to prove that the jamming doesn't hurt legitimate users nearby. Prisons have been applying for waivers from the FCC to conduct tests, but the commission is barred from blocking any radio signal under current law.

Still, South Carolina, with the help of controversial cell-phone jamming company CellAntenna, filed a petition with the FCC to allow it to conduct cell-phone jamming trials. Some 27 state and local governments signed the petition as well. South Carolina has been turned down before by the FCC, but the fact so many governments joined the state in seeking permission to conduct such trials shows just how problematic governments see the problem of cell phone use in prisons.

Prisoners are not supposed to have cell phones while incarcerated, but contraband devices appear in prisons and jails frequently. Prisoners reportedly have used the communication tools to conduct illegal behavior, such as continuing to lead their criminal operations or threatening key witnesses.

California corrections officials reported confiscating 2,809 cell phones in 2008. Mississippi officials found 1,861, and federal prison officials found 1,623. Tecore’s own analysis shows that in 2008, as many as 27,000 cell phones may have been used in prisons across the U.S., with each device typically shared among multiple inmates to make hundreds of calls.

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), which represents commercial mobile operators, has been trying to find common ground. It has been working with Maryland corrections officials to rid jails of cell phones using other avenues. During the hearing, it advocated the use of either cell-phone detection technology or managed access.

"If someone turns on a cell phone, it is identified [and located]," said Chris Guttman-McGabe, CTIA's vice president for regulatory affairs, in a recent interview. "So [officials] can find the phone and confiscate it, they can fingerprint, they can trap it and trace it, they can find out who's giving these phones, they can see the last 20 numbers that were called — basic police work."

However, Amit Malhotra, vice president of marketing with Tecore, said evidence suggests that simply confiscating a cell phone is not enough. The critical piece allowing communication on many phones is the subscriber identity module (SIM), which is the size of a postage stamp and can easily be removed and used on any phone.

Tecore's iNAC solution is a unified gateway that allows authorized devices to complete calls on a commercial mobile network on prison grounds. iNAC receives all call attempts in the target area and captures information about the SIM card and devices, including location and serial number, as well as the originating and terminating telephone numbers. In addition, the iNAC has three modes of operation: managed access, cell detection and lockdown. Additional features include full regulatory compliance with 911 regulations and support for lawful intercept.

Most importantly, said Malhotra, the solution doesn't require a change to existing law and the company already has proved — working with a major, unnamed prison—that the solution works.
Still, there is some groundwork that needs to be done with the FCC and commercial operators before deploying such a solution because Tecore's platform uses a gateway that decides which calls are allowed to travel out of prison and onto the commercial network. Malhotra said Tecore has created a template for working with all of the stakeholders involved.

"We've been careful in working with regulators and carriers," Malhotra said. "And we've been careful about the process in working with local and state correctional institutions. They have been burned by the process with jamming. They have been holding demonstrations but then finding out jamming is not legal. We're taking a measured approach to working with institutions. One of the things we have been doing is making them very much aware of all of the stakeholders involved, so that they can understand the requirements. We've done a lot of that work so they don't have to jump through the hoops."

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