T 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?
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
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
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.