Illegal Wireless DevicesTuesday, March 10, 2009
Coming soon to a school, restaurant, or concert hall near you? In recent postings on the Private Wireless Forum on Yahoo, which is populated with many communications professionals from all walks of life, comes the continuing saga of people installing wireless jammers. The latest such incident was at Mount Spokane School in Spokane, Washington where the device was turned on during class and shut off before and after school and during class breaks.
The idea was to prevent students from being able to use their cell phones during class for text or voice. However, when the jammer was turned on, it also jammed the radio that the Spokane County Sheriff had installed in the school that is used for both normal police activity and for swat teams that might be needed. The sheriff's quote went like this. "While I understand the problems / issues of teenagers and cell phones, interference to emergency communications is not acceptable. As I was not aware of this situation, I will be checking with the FCC enforcement bureau next week for any updates or information."
When he does check, he will find that wireless jammers are illegal in the United States as well as in many other countries. The section of the FCC rules that deals with this issue can be found in the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Communications Act of 1996 that reads as follows:
TITLE III—PROVISIONS RELATING TO RADIO
PART I GENERAL PROVISIONS
SEC. 302. [47 U.S.C. 302] DEVICES WHICH INTERFERE WITH RADIO RECEPTION.
(b) No person shall manufacture, import, sell, offer for sale, or ship devices or home electronic equipment and systems, or use devices, which fail to comply with regulations promulgated pursuant to this section.
SEC. 333. [47 U.C.S. 333] WILLFUL OR MALICIOUS INTERFERENCE.
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.
TITLE V—PENAL PROVISIONS – FORFEITURES
SEC. 501. [47 U.S.C. 501] GENERAL PENALTY.
Any person who willfully and knowingly does or causes or suffers to be done any act, matter, or thing, in this Act prohibited or declared to be unlawful, or who willfully and knowingly omits or fails to do any act, matter, or thing in this Act required to be done, or willfully and knowingly causes or suffers such omission or failure, shall upon conviction thereof, be punished for such offense, for which no penalty (other than a forfeiture) is provided in this Act, by a fine of not more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both; except that any person, having been once convicted of an offense punishable under this section, who is subsequently convicted of violating any provision of this Act punishable under this section, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both.
SEC. 502. [47 U.S.C. 502] VIOLATION OF RULES, REGULATIONS, AND SO FORTH.
Any person who willfully and knowingly violates any rule, regulation, restriction, or condition made or imposed by the Commission under authority of this Act, or any rule, regulation, restriction, or condition made or imposed by any international radio or wire communications treaty or convention, or regulations annexed thereto, to which the United States is or may hereafter become a party, shall, in addition to any other penalties provided by law, be punished, upon conviction thereof, by a fine of not more than $500 for each and every day during which such offense occurs.
This is not the first nor will it be the last time a jammer has been or will be deployed in this country, and unfortunately, the jammers themselves are available on a number of Internet websites from companies both in the United States and elsewhere. These devices run the gamut from a "personal" jammer worn by the user for about $100 to devices that are designed to cover large areas and sell for upwards of $1,000. By the way, these same sites are now selling GPS jammers—which I assume are also illegal where the GPS system uses licensed radio spectrum. One GPS jammer is designed to plug into the power plug of your automobile (formerly the cigarette lighter) and prevents the onboard GPS from being able to acquire the satellites.
What is even more disturbing is that on the Internet search engines I checked, not only did the companies selling the jammers come up in the search, they were matched with ads from several jammer suppliers, which means that search engine companies are selling ad space to these companies. In their defense, there are many illegal items advertised on the Internet and I am sure search engine ad departments cannot keep track or know about all of them. However, one major search engine (the most well-known) has been contacted about these ads.
Urgent Communications Magazine earns some extra income, as do many websites, by making a deal with the search engine company to place ads on its site that are based on the preferences of the readership. Not long ago, ads for jammers began being displayed on Urgent Communications' website. Readers complained and to its credit, the publisher contacted said Internet search engine provider and had it remove the ads from those that cycle onto this site.
We are now seeing two types of illegal wireless devices, but the jammers are the most disruptive. They not only jam the commercial wireless phones, they also jam most of the first responder and other two-way radio systems in the area. You can't call 911 from your cell phone, and when the police do arrive they aren't able to call for back-up or even talk to their dispatcher. This is a very dangerous situation for everyone and it is a wonder that no one has used a jammer designed to cover large buildings or outdoor areas in the commission of a crime since they are so readily available—at least we don't know of any instances. Think about the implications and you will understand that at some point these things could easily be used by criminals. No one will be able to communicate wirelessly, and if the cameras covering the area employ Wi-Fi for their communications, there won't be any video of the crime.
The other devices that are showing up do just the opposite. They take wireless network signals from outside a building and radiate them inside so there is coverage where there was none before, and take the phone signal from inside the building and radiate it outdoors where it can be heard by the network. The law here is equally clear. These devices are known as BDAs (Bi-Directional Amplifiers) or cellular repeaters and can be deployed legally only when the spectrum license holder gives permission for them to be installed. In some networks, unauthorized devices can play havoc with a cell sector and actually cause interference. In any event, these are also being sold on the Internet. There are many legitimate companies selling BDAs and they know and abide by the rules, but there are some, mostly outside North America, that build them and offer them for sale to individuals.
Jammers are legal in some countries if they are registered and warnings are posted—although I probably would not eat in a restaurant that had one. The desire to jam signals is largely due to most people's poor phone manners. In Japan, they don't jam signals in the trains but talking on phones is forbidden. In some I have ridden elsewhere, there are quiet cars, but these are well marked and you have a choice. With today's reliance on wireless devices, and especially since jammers can and do interfere with public safety communications, it is good that they are banned. Now all we need to do is figure out how to make the public aware of this issue.
Jammers don't care who is trying to use a phone or radio, they just spew out their noise and disrupt almost all wireless communications in the area. If you discover a place where there is a jammer, report it to the FCC. Its field offices are pretty thinly manned, but at some point it will respond. The other way to deal with jammers is to notify the owners of the premises of the penalties including a fine of up to $10,000 and jail for up to a year—perhaps in the same prison that wanted to install a jammer to prevent prisoners from using cell phones, not realizing it would create havoc with guards' communications as well.
Andrew M. Seybold