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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Harold Feld and I Usually Agree on Spectrum Issues

But He Is Wrong on the Prison Jamming Issue

Harold Feld is legal director of Public Knowledge. Until 2009, he was Senior Vice President of the Media Access Project (MAP), a non-profit, public interest telecommunications law firm that promotes the public's First Amendment right to hear and be heard on the electronic media of today and tomorrow. He often represents a variety of liberal groups dealing with spectrum and media access issues, including New America Foundation - a long time client. We usually agree on all spectrum issues. Readers may recall that his video's have appeared - and will continue to appear - in the "YouTube FCC Film Festival" corner of this blog

But recently Harold posted an entry on his blog and coauthored a letter to Congress on the prison cell phone jamming issue. The blog post is entitled "CellAntenna Scam Continues To Gain Momentum — Bummer" (CellAntenna is a manufacturer of cell phone jammers - illegal at present - and a vocal proponent for their use).

Let me say that I have no connection at all with CellAntenna other than having spoken to one of their employees once over the phone. I am working with the South Carolina Department of Corrections on seeking FCC approval of jamming in prisons under conditions that would prevent interference to others. (For those who say jamming is illegal under the 1934 Act, read the petition to see why the FCC has the authority to allow jamming.)

Is CellAntenna involved in a scam? Their apparent ongoing sale of illegal equipment, if verified, would indicate questionable morals. Some of their technical claims seem questionable. Since cell phone jamming is illegal at present, legitimate firms are not active in the area. I believe that legalization with firm and strict rules will clean up the scene and questionable behavior. Of course, FCC enforcement will be needed - something that has been scarce in the recent history.

But the real issue here is CTIA's repeated allegation that prison jamming would inevitably cause "unintended consequences" which is just as unjustified as much as some of CellAntenna's claim. However, I do fully agree that poorly implemented jamming is very dangerous.

Read the South Carolina petition that has now been signed by 28 states for a detailed discussion of the problem and a proposed solution that tries to balance all competing interests. It would not allow jammer sales in Radio Shack. It would draw a clear bright line between prison jamming and jamming in schools, restaurants, and theaters where cell phone use is merely obnoxious not dangerous. (Why doesn't CTIA ever do anything to discourage such obnoxious cellphone use?)

Harold and others place much credence is a comment made in a Wired magazine article
"There are also technical shortcomings: A few layers of tinfoil can shield a phone from the jamming signal."
I am not saying that this is impossible under all circumstances, but theory tells us that it is probably something that will only work on rare occasions and that the geometry of the "tinfoil" will have to change as objects in the area move and change the RF field at the cell phone in question.

The letter to Congress states,
"Cell phone providers can already adjust cell phone networks so that only authorized handsets can connect to the network. This practice, known as 'white listing,' will prevent any contraband phone from functioning without causing any interference to wireless systems. "
CTIA's Steve Largent made the same point at the Senate hearing this week. I haven't heard any proposals about how this will be financed and when CTIA members will offer it to at least prisons with large buffer areas around them.

Prison jamming is not a panacea. It will not solve all cell phone prison problems. It is not even possible in some prisons due to their size and location. But the cell phone use in prison problem is a major issue endangering public safety. Until better solutions are developed, given the real budgets of prisons, jamming will be a useful tool where it can be safely used.

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