WTB nixes prison test of cell phone jamming technology

Never mind the personal jet packs. We just want a little gadget in our pocket with a pushbutton on it, so when the teenager behind us in line at the post office – or worse, sitting next to us on a long and crowded commuter train ride – whips out her cell phone and starts in, "And I was like, No! Really? And he was like, Well, yeah. And I was like, No!. . .", we can push the button. And she’s like, "Hello? Hello?" while her cell phone flashes "Out of Service Area."

Wouldn’t that be great?

Not according to the FCC.

Last month we reported that the FCC had okayed a January 8 demo of wireless phone jammers in the District of Columbia jail. The authorities argued that prisoners with cell phones can cause trouble even while incarcerated, and saw jammers as a solution. The wireless phone industry vigorously opposed. The January demo never happened. The prison authorities renewed their request early in February. Late on February 18 the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (WTB) reversed course and turned them down.

Notwithstanding our own frustration – in the post office, train, and elsewhere – we can think of some good reasons why the WTB is right to disallow even temporary and limited use of jammers.

For one, the wireless phone companies paid a lot of money for their spectrum (as they remind us, frequently, in case it should ever slip our minds), and they are entitled to a say in who gets to use it. There is an exception for non-interfering uses; but of course, a jammer by definition is an interfering device.

Another reason: the FCC strives mightily to keep illegal jammers off the market. That task is easier if there are no lawful uses since, under those conditions, any import or sale is automatically a violation. Once the FCC starts allowing demos, then importers and retailers can try to argue that their products have a legal application, greatly complicating the enforcement effort. 

Or the WTB could have noted that jammers impede the speedy connection of 911 calls, and thus threaten public safety outside the prison.

But the WTB did not use those arguments.

Instead, it noted that use of a jammer violates FCC rules, the Communications Act, and FCC precedent.

All true. But none of these points would absolutely bar the demo, if the FCC really wanted to allow it. The FCC has clear authority to set aside its own rules, so the WTB could have gone that route. The agency is charged with interpreting the Communications Act in the public interest, which leaves it considerable leeway. And, under the facts of the D.C. prison request, the precedents could easily have been overcome.

The D.C. prison people can now ask the full Commission to review the WTB ruling, and if that goes against them, could go to court. Congress is already considering legislation that would carve out a narrow exception for jammers in prison environments.

Only one conclusion is certain: the debate is not over. We will let you know about future developments as soon as . . . Hello? Hello?