Seybold: Wireless jamming devices are illegal and dangerous

"Willful or Malicious Interferences -No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this Act or operated by the United States Government." FCC Rules Sec. 333 [47 U.C.S. 333]

The penalty for this type of interference is a $10,000 fine and up to one year in prison along with confiscation of the device causing the interference. In spite of this rule, the use of "jammers" is on the increase. One of the latest incidents involved the Mount Spokane school system, which installed a jammer to keep its students from using their phones during classes, turning the jammer off before and after school and during breaks. The jammer also knocked out the county sheriff's cross-band repeater used for police communications and SWAT team activity when needed.

This is only the most recent incident that has been reported, but many more have not yet been discovered. In spite of the law and penalties, jammers are readily available from many different sources. These devices spew noise over a wide portion of the spectrum and range from handheld jammers to very sophisticated devices that can blanket a large area. Jammers range in price from less than $200 to $1,000 or more. The same places selling jammers are now selling GPS jammers to disable the GPS in your car, including one that fits into what used to be called your cigarette lighter plug.

Recently, the FCC was asked to issue a Special Temporary Authorization for a prison to install a jammer to block cellular phone use by prisoners. The people who planned this obviously did not realize that a jammer in the prison would also knock out the guards' cell phones and its two-way radio system.

The Private Wireless Forum, a Yahoo special interest group made up of communications professionals from all walks of life, has been reporting on this issue to its members for the last month or more and many members are contributing their own stories and experiences. Jammers are being advertised on the Internet and, using any Internet search engine, you can find a number of companies that sell them. Some are U.S.-based and others will ship them into the United States using overnight shipping companies. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but along with the search results, on the right-hand side of the page there are usually ads placed by jammer companies and displayed when there is a search for a related product. All of the search engines I have visited have ads from these companies, sometimes three or four or more, which means their advertising folks are taking money from companies selling illegal jammers into the United States.

I realize that there are many illegal products being sold on the Internet and that search engine companies cannot be expected to know about all of them, but when Urgent Communications Magazine was blasted by readers for having ads for jamming devices displayed on its site, it took immediate action to have them removed. In addition, it made sure that the search engine company it was contracting with did not insert these ads again. However, the same search site is still inserting these ads on other sites.

The FCC's enforcement arm is spread very thin in the United States and its major focus appears to be on broadcast system issues more than enforcing something like this rule about jammers. But if a jamming device is found and you report it to the FCC, at some point action will be taken. Another way to approach this is to notify the jammer operator that he/she is breaking the law and tell them about the penalties for doing so. Jamming is not only illegal and interferes with cell phones, which in itself could be dangerous if someone needs to dial 911, it also interferes with most public safety systems. If the jammer is designed to take out Nextel's network, it will also take out all of the public safety systems that occupy the same band and any commercial two-way radio systems operating within the jammed area.

The main reason jammers are being used is because people who use wireless phones are not always courteous and respectful of others. In my doctor's office there is a big sign asking patients not to use their cell phones in the waiting room, but I have seen many people ignore the sign. In some countries, local jammers are permitted when there is a record of them, but they are commercially built and approved to cover ONLY specific commercial wireless network spectrum, not public safety spectrum. However, it appears from the ads I have read that the jammers being built and imported into this country are designed to create interference over a large portion of the spectrum.

As our wireless devices continue to replace our wired phones, many of us rely on our phones and BlackBerrys for business. I, for one, would avoid a place where a jammer is set up and running. Also, many within the educational community believe that prohibiting students from using phones during school is counterproductive and that phones should be embraced and used to augment classroom learning.

I can believe that many people do not know jammers are against the law, at least in the United States, and I can believe they might think they have the right to jam radio signals in their stores or schools. But jamming is both illegal and dangerous. People will build anything, legal or not, and try to sell it to unsuspecting customers, which is the case with jammers. It is also the case with bi-directional amplifiers (BDAs) that are used to extend coverage into a building. These BDAs can be installed, but only with the permission of the spectrum license holder.

There are more than 280 million people using commercial wireless devices in the U.S., and the wireless community and the FCC have done a lousy job of educating them about what they can and cannot do. As interference becomes more of an issue, we need to find ways to educate people about jammers and other illegal devices. If they install them anyway, they should pay the fine and go to prison, perhaps in the very prison that thinks a jammer will prevent its inmates from making calls but not, magically, affect its own phones and two-way radio systems.

Andrew M. Seybold is the CEO and Principal Analyst of Andrew Seybold, Inc. and the producer of the Andrew Seybold Wireless University, March 31 at CTIA Wireless 2009.