FCC proposes rule changes to help combat contraband cell phone usage in correctional institutions.

If The Shawshank Redemption had been set in 2013 rather than 60 years or so earlier, this prison-yard exchange between inmates Andy Dufresne and Red would probably go something like this:

Andy: I understand you’re a man who knows how to get cell phones.

Red:    I’m known to locate cell phones from time to time…but what would you want one for, Andy, to update your Facebook status?

The problem of contraband cell phone use in correctional institutions for social media status updates is very real. And while inmate status updates or video posts might be somewhat amusing – especially if they involve an organized flash mob(ster?) or this rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller – authorities are evermore concerned that contraband cell phones are being used by inmates for far more nefarious, criminal purposes.

In a recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the FCC is exploring regulatory approaches for reducing contraband cell phone usage in correctional institutions.

Why can’t prisons just “jam” the contraband cell phone signals, you ask?

Unfortunately, as our regular readers should know, federal laws prohibit jamming, even by correctional institutions trying to prevent mobsters from coordinating criminal activities via tweets and text messages. To compound the problem, the FCC doesn’t have authority to change the laws on jamming (that’s up to Congress) or the power to stop cell phones from being smuggled into prisons, especially by convicted felines.

Fortunately, the art of training cats to smuggle goods (or do any task, for that matter) is still unperfected, and lawful, non-jamming technological solutions are being developed and implemented to combat the use of contraband cell phones in prisons. The FCC is looking to ease the regulatory burdens associated with these technological solutions through rule changes proposed in its NPRM.

The NPRM discusses two current technological solutions to contraband cell phone usage: managed access systems (MAS) and detection systems. We’ll discuss each solution and the NPRM’s corresponding proposals in turn.

Managed Access Systems

MAS providers deploy equipment to function essentially as cell phone sites for all potential cell phone operations in a specific coverage area (e.g., a prison). The MAS allows authorized cell phones to access the normal carrier networks, while unauthorized cell phones can be blocked. Unlike unlawful “jammers”, MAS operate pursuant to FCC-granted licenses and do not broadcast radio signals which could potentially interfere with (or jam) all nearby cell communications.

In order to be completely effective in preventing contraband cell phone use, the MAS operator would need to be authorized to operate on spectrum utilized by all cell phone carriers in the deployed area. For example, deployment of an effective MAS at a prison located in an area served by Verizon, AT&T and Sprint would require the negotiation of spectrum leases with each of the three carriers for all licenses being utilized in the area. And applications would have to be filed with the FCC to obtain some manner of approval for each spectrum lease arrangement.

Certain types of arrangements are processed and approved immediately by the FCC’s licensing system, while others may trigger longer approval periods. The deployment process can be further delayed if the MAS operator wants to modify the authorizations in order to operate only as a private mobile radio service (PMRS) and avoid being subjected to all the regulatory requirements of a commercial mobile radio service (what a normal cell phone service provider is considered). Because MAS providers generally have no intention of operating as a cell phone service provider, a separate filing with the FCC, for each license/lease, would be required to change the regulatory classification to PMRS.

The NPRM proposes to streamline the FCC’s lease application process and other requirements for entities seeking to deploy MAS. In particular, the NPRM proposes to immediately process and approve qualifying lease applications for MAS and to eliminate the need for additional filings by presuming that MAS are operated as PMRS unless otherwise indicated. The NPRM also proposes to streamline the process for obtaining special temporary authority (STA) for situations where MAS operators need to conduct testing prior to finalizing the spectrum leasing/licensing steps.

The NPRM seeks public input on its proposals (and on related issues, such as whether notifications should be provided to cell phone users in an area of MAS deployment, and whether 911 or E911 rules should be applied to MAS providers).

Detection Systems

While MAS are deployed primarily to prevent contraband cell phone usage, detection systems using triangulation techniques allow prison officials to better identify and locate contraband cell phones. These systems don’t transmit any cell phone signals themselves and therefore, unlike MAS, do not require FCC spectrum licenses to be deployed. However, to be effective, detection systems need to be supplemented by additional efforts to either confiscate the contraband devices or terminate service to those devices once identified.

Of course, it’s a little scary to ask convicted felons to turn over their cell phones (would you want to be the one to tell Hannibal Lecter he can’t text message Clarice anymore?). So the NPRM proposes new requirements for cell phone carriers to terminate service upon receiving appropriate notification from an authorized party that a contraband device is being utilized. The NPRM asks for comment on this proposal and the specifics of implementing such a proposal including: the costs and burdens this proposal would create for the carrier; the specific information that must be provided to effectuate a termination; authentication of requests; and the timing of service termination.

The Commission is also interested in: (1) whether Section 705 of the Communications Act, which generally prohibits divulging the existence or contents of communications by wire or radio unless authorized to do so, would apply to operators of MAS and detection systems (which presumably need to divulge the fact that a communication exists, or the cell phone identifying information contained in the communication); and (2) other potential technological solutions to the problem of contraband cell phone usage in prisons.

Interested parties can check out the NPRM for all of the issues on which the FCC seeks comment. The deadlines for comments and replies won’t be set until the NPRM is published in the Federal Register. Check back here for updates.