To jam or not to jam
I first met Howard Melamed in 2005 during the APCO show in Denver. He was already deep into his one-man crusade to urge the FCC to allow public safety to use jamming devices to ward off the dangers of cell-phone-triggered explosives.
The CEO and president of CellAntenna was quite passionate and spoke seemingly a million words a minute during our meeting, stressing that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the weapon of choice among terrorists. Three years later, his passion hasn’t waned, despite the fact that he can’t get the FCC to see his point of view.
It’s illegal to use any radio-frequency jamming equipment by private and public organizations. The law has been in place since 1934. CellAntenna mounted a judicial challenge to the constitutionality of the law in 2005, seeking to allow the use of cellular jamming equipment by state and local governments and first responders. It was unsuccessful as the court said it didn’t have jurisdiction. CellAntenna has now filed for a petition for rulemaking with the FCC to allow state and local governments to use jamming equipment.
Public-safety groups have filed petitions with the FCC over the matter too, including the GEO Group, which manages prisons around the country. It wants the FCC to allow state and local prisons to jam cell phone signals. Apparently cell phone smuggling in prisons has become a growing problem as criminals use them to traffic drugs, arrange murders or just gab for hours. Most recently, a Texas death row inmate used an illegal cell phone to threaten state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which oversees prison operations.
The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) opposes the idea of cell-phone jamming, saying the practice would have unintended implications, such as jamming up 911 calls and of course disrupting cell-phone signals for millions of customers which in turn could disrupt the businesses of the mobile-phone operators they represent.
Yet on Friday, Melamed and company plan to demonstrate CellAntenna’s jamming technology at a South Carolina prison, risking enforcement action by the FCC that could include $16,000 a day in fines. CTIA is urging the government to put a stop to the event. CellAntenna insists that its jamming technology has the ability to disable communications only within a certain area, without jamming signals of nearby users.
The reality is that the issue can’t be ignored. As cell phones continue to proliferate, so will the ways they can threaten the public’s safety, as well as those sworn to serve and protect. The FCC claims it doesn’t have the authority to grant waivers to state and local entities, only to federal agencies and only in extreme cases when the public is in imminent danger. Will it take an act of Congress?
All I know is that it’s time to begin exploring ways public safety can stop nefarious uses of cell phones, whether that’s cell-phone jamming or other technology such one promoted by Tecore Networks. It has developed selective call processing that restricts calls by differentiating user groups and enabling policies for each.
The wireless industry is full of intelligent folks. It shouldn’t be impossible to come up with solutions that don’t harm legitimate uses of cell phones. They just need the freedom to do so.