FCC warning follows much-publicized incident on a Philadelphia bus.

The FCC has issued one of its periodic warnings against selling or using jammers to interfere with cell phones, GPS, Wi-Fi, or any other radio-based service.

The story this time begins with a guy named Eric who rides the buses in Philadelphia. Whenever someone on the bus disturbed his tranquility by talking on a cell phone, Eric fired up his pocket-sized cell phone jammer. The caller’s phone stopped working, and Eric resumed his internal dialogue undisturbed. “A lot of people are extremely loud,” explained Eric, “no sense of just privacy or anything.  When it becomes a bother, that’s when I screw on the antenna and flip the switch.”

One of Eric’s fellow passengers works for a local TV station. “He’s blatantly holding this device that looks like a walkie-talkie with four very thick antennae,” she reported to her colleagues in the news department. “I started to watch him and any time somebody started talking on the phone, he would start pressing the button on the side of the device.”  A news crew went undercover and caught Eric in the act.

It must have been a slow news day in Philadelphia. The story went semi-viral, drawing both support and condemnation. Some people, along with Eric, believed that jamming cell calls is not illegal. 

The FCC wants you to know that’s wrong.

“In recent days,” says the FCC, “there have been various press reports about commuters using cell phone jammers to create a ‘quiet zone’ on buses or trains.” That would be Eric. The FCC goes on: it is illegal to use a cell or GPS jammer or any other type of device that blocks, jams or interferes with authorized communications, as well as to import, advertise, sell, or ship such a device.

Penalties can be steep, adds the FCC: fines of up to $112,500, seizure of the illegal jammer, and possible imprisonment.

If you think going to jail for jamming phone calls on the bus is a little harsh, you’re probably right. So far as we know (and we try to keep track of these things), the FCC has never tried to lock anybody up for using a jammer; at most, it just takes away their jammer, shakes a firm regulatory finger at them, and tells them not to do that anymore. The FCC does, however, try to cut off offenses at the source by levying fines against companies that sell jammers to U.S. customers.

Anyone who has had to suffer through one side of an unpleasant cellphone conversation on public transportation can easily sympathize with the Erics of the world. But the FCC’s perspective is considerably broader than any single discomforted individual. Jammers tend to create a bigger zone of interference than the user may intend. Seventy percent of 911 calls come from wireless phones, so someone using a jammer may unknowingly block a neighbor’s cry for help. Because the FCC worries about things like that, its ban even prohibits jammers inside a person’s own home. If you see this as one more instance of Big Government intruding on your personal freedoms, you’d best take it up with your representatives in Congress.

One of our earlier blog pieces about people using cell phones in public worried that irked bystanders might resort to the use of firearms. We said this in jest, of course. But to our surprise, a number of readers took us seriously; scroll down to read their comments here. So we’ll clarify the record: commlawblog.com in no way supports any form of violence against cell phone users. An angry glare, sure. Ratting them out to the local TV news people – no problem. But no violence, please.

The FCC similarly prohibits interference with GPS and Wi-Fi. Most of the problems in these bands result not from intentional jamming, but from efforts to provide a stronger signal, as by re-transmitting GPS within a building or attaching illegal amplifiers to boost Wi-Fi range. But any transmissions on GPS frequencies are illegal, unless you are the U.S. Government; and the FCC strictly regulates Wi-Fi amplifiers. Consumer cell-phone boosters are also against the law, although that may soon change.

Eventually even Eric got the message, and told the Philadelphia TV station he plans to dispose of his jammer. Maybe the FCC should hire him as a spokesman. We’ll let you know.