By Mark Pallans
Jamming may be technologically possible, but it isn’t necessarily the best or even most practical method to reduce cell-phone use. Unless federal rules are changed to permit the federal government to prevent the importation of jamming devices rather than just prohibiting their use, there is no purpose in having a technical discussion on the topic. Unscrupulous businesses — domestic and offshore — advertise and sell jammers to whoever will pay their prices.
These devices are designed for the sole purpose of flooding an area with an overpowering signal, making them dangerous and a threat to the safety of both the public-safety agencies that rely on radio systems adjacent to the cellular frequency bands and the public. Recent examples have been highlighted in news reports and by radio and cellular trade organizations. In Miami, a lawyer who was tired of having his clients’ phones interrupt his meeting spent about $90 for an imported jammer from China. It managed to shut down the Miami-Dade Police Department’s radio system, one of the largest in the country.
A high school principal got fed up with students using cell phones in school so he bought a jammer, which managed to shut down the communications for a sheriff’s department. A Kansas school system appropriated $5,000 to buy cell-phone jamming equipment; fortunately it cancelled its plans when it found out the jammers are illegal. Adopting a policy of confiscation and punishment would make more sense. What happens if another Columbine event occurs, and the 9-1-1 calls are made from the cell phones of staff or students cowering under desks? More benignly, what about the radios used by contractors and delivery people who miss calls because they went into a building that jammed their radios?
Prison officials created the impetus for jammers by hosting illegal demonstrations by “snake oil salesmen” who convinced these officials that cell phones are running rampant in the nation’s jail facilities. While it’s true that smuggling cell phones into corrections facilities is a significant and increasing problem, the use of jammers not only prevents a call but can shut down a facility’s two-way radio systems and the systems of other emergency service providers who respond to incidents at these facilities. The devices also can interfere with normal cellular use outside the confines of the prison walls.
The FCC recently issued a citation to a firm that marketed and sold 69 GPS jamming devices to the public. While commercial aviation doesn’t rely on GPS for its primary navigation system, I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding on a plane where the passenger sitting next to me could be jamming the GPS system. What useful purpose can jamming GPS serve? Even though this company imported and sold these devices in violation of federal laws, the citation only warns the company not to do it again.
Jamming isn’t a practical method of stopping or preventing cell-phone use. Because there will always be ways for people to get jamming equipment regardless of whether or not it’s legal, it’s better to develop technologies that detect the clandestine use of cell phones and go directly after the perpetrators, similar to how direction finders and radio “fingerprint” devices track down and stop illegal radio users or interference to radio systems.
While jamming technology standards can be developed that would protect legitimate users and adjacent licensees, some people likely will produce “bootleg” devices without adherence to the standards. When this happens, systems will be interfered with and some people may suffer from the consequences. Until we can prevent jammers from being illegally imported and from being used by people who are either ignorant or selfish, there is no alternative but to maintain the current rules and prohibit their use.
Read the pro-jamming counter argument here.
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