The campaign of a company called CellAntenna to conduct demos of its cell phone jamming equipment inside prisons got a boost last week from the FCC.  It will get to give its gear a work-out in the real-world environment of the District of Columbia jail — but only under rigid limits.

CellAntenna manufactures equipment which can apparently jam cell phone calls within highly circumscribed environments like prisons.  Corrections authorities are very interested in the device as a tool to prevent unauthorized use of cell phones by prisoners to arrange drug buys, plan escapes, order hits on witnesses, call their bookies, exceed the minutes in their monthly plans, call their stock brokers (some of whom may be in the same facility), etc.  To that end, CellAntenna has arranged several demonstration events at prisons around the country, drawing the wrath of CTIA and cell phone companies who object on principle to their signals being jammed.  Not to mention that such jamming operations are normally impermissible within the US and the CellAntenna equipment therefore can’t even be sold here.

In the face of threats from the cellular industry, the Texas Corrections Department cancelled a scheduled test last month. On December 16 the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, however, went the other way: they requested the FCC to authorize, in advance, a January 8 test in D.C. And the FCC’s Wireless Bureau granted with unusual alacrity.  The authority is extraordinarily narrow – it permits operation of the jamming equipment only for 30 minutes at lunch time on January 8 and only within the confines of the D.C. Jail.

While this brief demo seems harmless enough and could even have some potential public interest benefits, the cell industry is extremely wary of this particular camel getting its nose under the cellular tent.   It is but a short leap from blocking calls in prisons to blocking calls in concert halls, movie theaters, class rooms, airplanes, etc.  While we can sympathize with folks who would dearly love to have such calls jammed, the fundamental right of cell phone users to make phone calls wherever and whenever they please could be abridged, along with the fundamental right of cell phone companies to make money from their exclusive frequency licenses.   We presume that CellAntenna will eventually seek an appropriate rule change or waiver to permit the marketing and sale of its product in the US, so we have certainly not heard the last of this story.