A Philadelphia bus rider’s cell phone jammer has lit up the blogosphere with praise and condemnation for the illegal practice.
As of this month an estimated 6 billion people worldwide are active cell phone subscribers. eBay expects $8 billion in global sales and Paypal expects $7 billion in mobile payments this year. With more essential financial and public safety functions going mobile every day the debate over one person’s right to jam service is an important one.
Everyone has suffered through someone’s loud and public cell phone rant about Briana’s latest snub or granite countertops. But is it ever right to play God with someone else’s cell phone reception?
Marketed on websites as signal blockers, cell jammers, GPS jammers, or text stoppers − they retail for between $40 and $1,000 and the smallest can fit in a pocket. Despite being illegal to sell, online retailers pitch them as the solution to silence cell phones in classrooms, theaters, restaurants, or business meetings. But jammers also block critical emergency and public safety communications and targeted transmissions.
“The price for one person’s moment of peace or privacy, could be the safety and well-being of others,” said Michele Ellison, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau on its website.
The debate has prompted the Federal Communication Commission to ask for public comments and to remind consumers that it’s illegal to use or buy jamming equipment. “Jamming devices create serious safety risks,” said Ellison. “While people who use jammers may think they are only silencing disruptive conversations or disabling unwanted GPS capabilities, they could also be preventing a scared teenager from calling 9-1-1, an elderly person from placing an urgent call to a doctor, or a rescue team from homing in on the location of a severely injured person.”
Up to 70 percent of 911 calls now come from cell phones, according to the FCC.
On the public safety side, cell phone jammers are used by law enforcement to foil terrorists using cell-phone based bomb trigger devices. Foreign governments routinely jam or switch off cell phone networks to create a protective bubble around visiting dignitaries. The British government debated this when George Bush visited London in 2003 after 9/11.
Being caught using jamming equipment can carry serious fines. A single violation of the jamming prohibition can result in tens of thousands of dollars in monetary penalties, seizure of the illegal device, and imprisonment.
A Texas Beauty School was reported in 2009 when it set up a jamming unit in order to enforce cell phone-free zone in classrooms. The FCC proposed a $25,000 fine against the website that sold the school the unit and two others that had not been set up yet.
In another incident on record, In 2010 the St. Lucie County Florida Sheriff’s Office traced the trouble they were having with their communications to a jammer in use by a Port St. Lucie business. The same website was allegedly fined another $25,000 for “a pattern of intention non-compliance.”
“If people want to buy these things they’re going to get them,” said a sales rep at one Internet site offering jammers for sale who declined to be named. “If we don’t sell them, someone else will.”
This is another example of public problem where the scope and capability of the technology has outpaced the ability of the law to govern it.
A Pew Research study found that 84 percent of all Americans own a cell phone today. As cell phones and mobile systems become even more ubiquitous – safeguards will have to be put in place to keep essential systems safe from outside threats, including random jammers like the guy on the bus in Philadelphia.
The FCC has opened up public comments until April 30. To make one online use the FCC Electronic Comment Filing System.