Wi-Fi jammers, too!

Having recently spanked Marriott for $600K for interrupting private Wi-Fi use at one of its hotel properties – concern about which presumably prompted Marriott to seek formal guidance about just how far they can go in managing Wi-Fi use at their venues – the Commission has issued another of its ever-popular “Enforcement Advisories” warning against the use of jammers to interfere with cellphone, Wi-Fi or GPS devices. (Similar advisories were issued in 1999, 2005, 2011 and 2012, along with Spanish and Mandarin versions of the 2012 notice.)

The use of jammers is, of course, a very tempting way to control disruptive uses of wireless devices. Prison officials have long wanted to use jammers in prisons, where illegal cellphones are in widespread use by (among others) cell-bound prisoners managing illegal enterprises on the outside. And we have previously reported about one enterprising commuter in Philadelphia who used a pocket-sized jamming device when fellow bus passengers disturbed his ride by talking on their phones too loudly.

There are many other venues where a jammer would come in handy for the average Joe: theaters and concert halls, for instance, where standard pleas at the beginning of a performance to turn cellphones off are often ignored, leading to an annoying cellphone jingle in the middle of a performance. And how about restaurants, which are noisy enough without the person at the next table yapping away on the phone?  

But guess what?

No matter how virtuous their purpose may be, jammers are illegal for just about everybody, including both private person and state and local law enforcement officials. (One exception: certain authorized federal government officials – why should the feds have to follow everyone else’s rules?)

The problem with jammers is that, whatever their potential benefits, jammers’ signals don’t discriminate. Sure, they block the loudmouth next to you at the movies, but they can cause injury or death by blocking a call to 9-1-1 or other source of emergency assistance. They can cause serious inconvenience by blocking critical calls to family members or businesses. They can cause a GPS user to get lost or even to come into harm’s way. They can prevent a first responder from locating the source of an emergency call and thus thwart a rescue.

It is illegal not only to operate jammers in the United States but also to import them (including private online purchases of equipment that is shipped to a U.S. address from anywhere in the world), to sell them, and to advertise them online or in stores. Fines can be up to $122,500 for each violation, and the FCC has indeed levied serious fines against sellers of jammers.

The extent to which the FCC will be successful in clamping down on jammers remains to be seen. But it will also be interesting to see how broadly the FCC will interpret the term “jamming,” particularly in light of the Marriott case. Where the Commission’s 2011 public notice referred only to devices that “intentionally block, jam or interfere with” Wi-Fi, the new public notice (like its 2012 precursor) refers to to jammers that “prevent your Wi-Fi enabled devices from connecting to the Internet.” Will the FCC interpret “jamming” only as the transmission of radio signals that cause interference, or will it broaden the concept of illegal jamming to include anything that prevents or impairs, in any manner, the functioning of a radio-based device? 

And if the FCC goes too far, will someone jam their efforts in court? Stay tuned to CommLawBlog.com for further developments.