Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Techie Trepidation - Part 2

Cell Phone Jamming

Imagine that you and your significant other are enjoying a well-deserved night out at the movies. The babysitter has been given both of your mobile phone numbers (in case the battery should notoriously tank on one of them), and you have dutifully put them both on vibrate so as not to disturb the other moviegoers.

The movie is great; as you exit the building you are enjoying a lively comparison of each other's thoughts about the film when both your phones start buzzing. As you look at them, they show multiple missed calls and voice mails from the babysitter, who says that Junior is on the way to the ER after taking a tumble down the basement steps.

Depending on the type of building and the type of cell service you have, this is a plausible scenario right now. What would you think if you found out that the theater operator had a device installed and running inside the movie house that overrides the signals from a phone or nearby tower sites, thus rendering the phone useless inside the building?

In the US and most North American countries, these devices are illegal, and we are fortunate to have an enforcement arm at the federal level that aggressively pursues those who attempt to even advertise them for sale here.

The ubiquitous nature and proliferation of cell phones across our society and culture has altered the fundamental conduct of our lives, as well as added an extra layer of access and accountability to those lives impacted by cell phones.

Essential to the public safety, as well as the credibility of the wireless phone industry, is the ability to use these devices in a manner unfettered by man-made technical issues, at least in those areas where the provider deems it profitable to provide coverage.

While a family of 4 driving on Grand Mesa this week found that out the hard way, the amount of reliance that many of our citizens place on cell phone coverage in more densely populated areas requires the kind of diligence that the feds are displaying, even if it's being done to benefit the members of the cell phone lobby as much as the customers using the phones themselves.

Still, there have been legitimate concerns expressed by at least one segment of government that the use of cell phones may truly be placing the public at risk, and at least one state decided to do something about it last week.

Prison officials in South Carolina and Texas have expressed interest in having federal regulations changed to exempt correctional facilities from prohibitions on jamming equipment. There appears to be some good reasons for their concerns; cell phones have been smuggled into prison cell blocks and allegedly used to conduct criminal activity on the outside, including at least one homicide and threats against journalists and public officials, and their families.

After meeting initial resistance from the FCC and a large amount of pressure from the CTIA and private land mobile dealers, South Carolina got a commitment from the feds to 'work with them' and conducted a successful test of a cell phone jamming device at one of their prisons. Texas now wants to do the same.

This makes sense, but it starts us down a slippery slope that must be closely monitored by those in other public safety sectors, including emergency management, as well as the cellular industry. Some would say that cellular jamming in other environments may be beneficial to keeping disruptions to a minimum in schools, certain entertainment venues, courthouses, and other places.

I'm sure there are even more reactionary elements that would love to have a jamming device ready to deploy for lawful protests, in an attempt to disrupt any smart mob organizing activity, or the distribution of audio and video by citizen journalists.

Deploy one or two of these in a college classroom building or a concert hall, then see what happens when an emergency alert goes out to the rest of the campus, or when Junior takes a tumble and the babysitter has to call. See where one 'common sense' application can potentially lead us, especially without a short regulatory leash?

The cell phone is not only an electronic tool (or tether). It is a little commerce engine. It facilitates the sharing of information and opportunity, and the ability for those with the knowledge to capitalize on that opportunity.
It serves as a plot device in most motion pictures set in the present day. It connects social groups to the Internet and to each other in ways that are changing faster than Sarah Palin in the leather section at Saks.

Prudent use of regulation to facilitate effective wireless service, especially in rural and even remote areas, combined with a common sense approach to deny access to those who shouldn't have it, is the best way to preserve the potential for this technology without endangering the very public that relies on it.

And just because one federal agency is diligent about certain things doesn't mean that other government forces are doing the same. For example, today's story about the White House rejecting an FCC rulemaking that would have required all cell towers to have at least an 8 hour backup power source. Kind of puts the "lame" in "lame duck"...

Now hang up and drive.

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