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Block That Ringtone!

By SAM LUBELL

Published: April 8, 2004

IT could happen on a train, in a restaurant or during an awe-inspiring aria at a performance of "Carmen": a neighbor's cellphone starts bleating the theme song from "Friends," disrupting the mood and setting nerves on edge. Wouldn't it be great, you think to yourself, if this couldn't happen?

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Others are thinking likewise, including companies and researchers developing or already selling devices that render cellphones inoperable in certain locations. Methods include jammers that interfere with cellphone frequencies, routing systems that mute phones' ringers in specific places, sensors that detect active cellphones and building materials that block cellphone waves.

Proponents say that such measures are more effective than "no cellphone" signs, "quiet cars" on trains or even legal restrictions (like a law prohibiting cellphone use during performances, enacted by the New York City Council last year).

The concerns go beyond mere annoyance: casinos are seeking to stop phone-based cheating; prison authorities want to guard against phone use by inmates for drug deals or other forms of wrongdoing. With the rise of camera cellphones have come privacy concerns that have made locker rooms and other areas no-phone zones.

"At some point the American public will become so frustrated with the abuse of cellphones that it will rise up and yell that something must be done," said Dave Derosier, chief executive of Cell Block Technologies, based in Fairfax, Va., which is developing a transmitter the size of a smoke detector that relays signals of "no service" to cellphone frequencies, prompting them to send calls to voice mail.

Cell Block's products are slightly more sophisticated versions of what is probably the most widespread method of stopping cellphone use, called jamming, which renders phones inoperable by disrupting the connection between cellphone towers and cellphones. Jamming devices overpower phones' frequencies with especially strong signals and often with loud noise. Such devices can be found on eBay and at Web sites like globalgadgetuk.com.

That site says it has sold thousands of devices to theaters, businesses, military users and individuals. The jammers range from $200 for a rudimentary hand-held model to nearly $10,000 for suitcase-sized gear sold to governments and the military, with the price usually based on the signal range and the likelihood of disrupting cellular activity.

Other means are also in development, from devices that merely detect cellphone use (and prompt users to desist) to construction methods that render cellphones inoperable.

But not everyone finds this trend encouraging. Cellphone industry experts and federal regulators deride jammers in particular as unlawful, unethical and even dangerous.

"You're not allowed to barricade the street in front of your house because you don't like hearing an ambulance," said Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, who asserts that blocking systems inhibit customers' rights and can block emergency calls. "Just like roads, the airwaves are public property."

The Federal Communications Commission points specifically to the Federal Communications Act of 1934, which says that "no person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications" licensed by the government.

"It is the F.C.C.'s authority and obligation to determine which transmissions are lawful," said Lauren Patrich, a spokeswoman for the commission's wireless bureau. "If the F.C.C. doesn't have that authority, then what's its point?" Fines for violations can reach $11,000 for a single offense.

Mr. Derosier said that devices like Cell Block's are "questionably legal" in the United States, but he added that with proper disclosure and provisions made for emergencies, there is no reason that they should not be used. The devices are legal in Japan, France and Eastern Europe, and in most of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, he said.

Mr. Derosier said that prospective buyers in those areas included prisons, mosques, banks and embassies. Globalgadgetuk's owner, Michael Menage, said he believes that "people should be able to do whatever they want in their own spaces." He said his largest group of customers comes from the United States, which he said is evidence that there is a need for such technology here.


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