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Cell Phone Jamming: At the FCC, Silence Is Expensive

For those tired of having their dinner conversations interrupted by others’ cell phone calls, or watching movies in a theater by the light coming off the screens of nearby texters, technology has provided a solution. Unfortunately it is illegal.

In a recent decision, the FCC fined a company called $25,000 for marketing jamming equipment in the U.S. through its website, The FCC discovered the violations when its field agents, responding to complaints from a cellphone service provider in Dallas, and a County’s Sheriff’s office in Florida, traced the interference in each case to a local business, and discovered that the proprietor had purchased and was operating a Phonejammer unit acquired through the website. Unfortunately, the FCC’s decision does not indicate the type of businesses that were using the Phonejammer, so it is not clear if they were restaurants, theaters, or just businesses tired of their employees texting their friends all day.

Under the Communications Act, it is illegal to sell jamming equipment because of the harm done, both intentionally and otherwise, to electronic communications. While putting an end to loud cell phone calls in upscale restaurants, or to students texting in class, might sound appealing to managers of such places, the interference to communications cannot easily be confined to just that location. Of course, the problems with jamming are not limited to just unintentional interference to nearby areas. There are similar issues affecting the business location seeking to jam calls. You can imagine what would happen if a patron had a heart attack on the premises and the emergency response was delayed when other patrons’ cell phone calls to 911 couldn’t get through.

Because of these concerns, the U.S. has always strictly prohibited the marketing of jamming devices, and not even police are permitted to use jammers. To appreciate the extent of the government’s concern with jamming, note that jamming equipment is not permitted even in prisons, where smuggled cellphones have caused unrelenting headaches for prison officials, with some inmates continuing to manage criminal enterprises via cell phone while still in prison.

That may be about to change, however. The Senate last year passed S.251, the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009, to permit targeted jamming of cell phone service within prisons. While it has not yet been approved by the House of Representatives, support for the idea has been strong. As with most well-intentioned ideas, however, the question is what unintended consequences will be involved, particularly if the jammers are not carefully monitored and regulated. For example, will a highway that passes a prison inevitably be a cellular dead zone for passing commuters, or will the technology, once permitted, be refined to largely eliminate unintended interference (if that is possible)? Again, it may be a minor annoyance to lose a call when driving by a prison, but a serious traffic accident in that area can make reliable cell phone service a life and death issue.