LMR sector is in a jam
Its always nice to take a break from writing about rebanding, narrowbanding and banding in general. This month, I’m focusing on an issue that has public-safety agencies in quite a quandary — cell-phone jamming in prisons.
The controversy has been brewing for months, ever since the South Carolina Department of Corrections demonstrated cell-phone jammers in November and claimed their effectiveness.
The problem is clear. Cell phones are being snuck into prisons at an alarming rate, and prisoners have used them to organize murders, escapes and other crimes. A recent television news segment highlighted such an incident in Maryland, but the problem also has been cited in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Let’s not minimize the problem. In 2008, Maryland prisons recovered 947 contraband cell phones — a 70% increase over 2006. Gov. Martin O’Malley wrote to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) that “current attempts to ensure that cell phones stay out of prisons can easily be foiled and must be supplemented by the best technology available.”
Along comes CellAntenna — which the land-mobile- radio industry has been warring with over its sale of cellular boosters — with its cell-jamming technology. Of course, jamming such signals is contrary to federal statute. More importantly, though, jamming of cellular signals means jamming of Nextel’s system, which means that other transmissions in the 800 MHz band — like the jail’s public-safety radios — also would be jammed.
Many public-safety advocates now find themselves aligned with the cellular industry in opposition to these devices. After an initial misstep, the FCC agreed. However, there are many correctional-facility wardens who want and need help in this fight. As a result, public safety is at odds with itself over the issue.
In recognition of the problem, the U.S. Senate introduced a bill to amend the Communications Act. The “Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009,” would allow prison officers to submit a waiver to the FCC and request the use of cell jammers.
While the bill’s language prohibits the devices from interfering with public-safety communications, we all know how difficult — if not impossible — that will be to achieve, particularly at a facility with an 800 MHz system.
But the LMR industry does not have the PR high ground on this issue. It may be a technologically complex issue, but the problem of cell-phone use in prison is so immense that efforts by the LMR industry to prevent these units from being introduced will be viewed very negatively. Although the thought of CellAntenna succeeding in business is difficult for some land-mobile advocates to stomach, it is important to look past emotions and seriously confront this problem.
Merely advocating better search procedures or the use of search dogs won’t be sufficient to derail this bill. Rather, LMR advocates need to point out the technological problems with such units and, more importantly, develop technological solutions that address the problem without the attendant limitations.
The engineering talent in this industry is immense. It’s difficult to believe that — working collectively — we cannot come up with something that works for everyone. Let’s assist Congress and the FCC in developing that option.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.