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CAPITAL CURRENTS: Jamming Cell Phone Signals

Mon, 11/30/2009 - 7:05pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Any time anyone comes into the Federal Communications Commission with what seems like a good idea, someone else is sure to point out why it's a bad idea. Case in point: jamming Jeffrey Kraussillicit use of cell phones by prisoners.

Jamming radio signals is illegal in the United States, but there is growing pressure on the FCC to allow jamming of cell phones by prison officials to prevent prisoners from using smuggled cell phones. The cellular industry is opposing these pressures with a variety of arguments. The bottom line: more indecision at the FCC.

Both the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and the 30 state corrections agencies that filed the petition at the FCC agree that the illegal use of wireless phones in prisons is a serious problem. For example, in Baltimore, a prisoner ordered the murder of a witness to another murder using an illicit cell phone.

So prison officials want to jam cell phone signals in and around prisons. CTIA argues that Section 333 of the Communications Act makes that illegal.

Section 333 says: "No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this chapter or operated by the United States government."

But the FCC could interpret the word "authorized" to mean that the law applies only to legitimate customers. Even CTIA agrees that prisoners using smuggled cell phones are not legitimate customers.

Admittedly, jamming could affect legitimate customers when prisons are located in urban areas, such as Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., which is next to a residential area, and Arlington County Jail in Virginia, which is in a high-rise office building. But most newer prisons have been built in rural areas with large buffer zones, so jamming could be limited to these kinds of facilities. Prison officials say they would only install jammers where legitimate customers would not be affected.

Some countries allow cell phone jamming. For example, France allows jamming not only in prisons, but also in theaters and concert halls. So CTIA might be concerned that prison jamming is just the camel's nose under the tent.

CTIA argues that jamming will be ineffective in the long run. Prisoners will search to find spots where their signal gets through. Some prison officials believe that it is not necessary to jam in open yard areas since a prisoner talking on a cell phone will be easily detected by guards or cameras. But CTIA notes that a prisoner can type in a text message in some secluded but jammed area, put the phone in his pocket, and walk out into the unjammed open yard where the cell phone will automatically connect to the network and send the text message.

In addition, there have been cases where prison workers were caught smuggling cell phones into prisons, for sale at up to $500 each. These same guards might unplug or sabotage jammers.

Moreover, some cell phones (such as those from Nextel) might operate in frequency bands that are not fully dedicated to public cell phone use, where public cell phone frequencies are interleaved with private mobile frequencies for users such as public safety radio systems.

There are companies working on technological solutions that do not involve jamming. It is easy to conceive of a "special" cell site installed either by the wireless carriers or the prison officials that "captures" any usage attempts, blocks their completion and, at the same time, gathers intelligence by recording the called number. For example, the FCC recently granted Tecore Networks a two-day experimental license to demonstrate this type of alternative to jamming that might control the use of cell phones in prisons.

Similarly, the same E911 geolocation technology that is now required for all wireless phones could be used to locate illicit phones in prisons. Wireless phone companies could define the outer coordinates of prisons and then intercept any calls originating within those coordinates.

Deploying technological solutions would require the cooperation of wireless phone companies, but so far their support is uncertain. In addition, the cost is uncertain, as well as who would pay (corrections agencies or all cell phone users?). Would the technological solution be a service offered by its inventor or by the wireless carrier, or would prison officials have to buy and operate the equipment? The business model is uncertain.

CTIA says that analysis should come before action. All alternatives need to be studied. Sounds like a fine idea. But CTIA envisions a paper study, not including tests of the effectiveness of jamming. Just like when CTIA opposed the deployment of E911 geolocation capability in wireless phones, it has again dug in its heels, even opposing any tests of the effectiveness of jamming.

So here we are again. The FCC hates to make a decision when there are opponents with strong views and strong arguments. And whenever an entity with strong lobbying ties to the FCC exerts pressure, the FCC takes the path of least resistance: delay.

 jkrauss@krauss.ws

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