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Updated Wednesday, 7 March, 2012
No service? Maybe you've been zapped by a mobile phone jammer.
A Philadelphia man has stirred up controversy after he frequently used a device on a public bus to create a mobile phone dead zone.
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A reporter for NBC10 in Philadelphia recently tracked down the man, who was using a mobile phone jammer on the bus to block riders' phone reception. His reason - he didn't want to listen to other people's phone conversations. He says he turns on the illegal device whenever other passengers talk too loudly and bother him.
The man, identified as Eric, told NBC reporters: "I guess I'm taking the law into my own hands, and quite frankly, I'm proud of it."
A jammer looks similar to a walkie-talkie and has multiple antennae pointing out of the top of the device. Its job is to jam, block or interfere with wireless communication including Wi-Fi, mobile phone reception, GPS and police radar.
In the US, section 302(b) of the Communication Act of 1934 [PDF] prohibits the "marketing, sale or use" of jammers. The federal government and companies contracted to do federal work, typically related to homeland security, are the only ones permitted to use jammers. Like many uninformed people who have jammers, Eric said he thought a jammer was legal to use.
"We are troubled by the reported incident and are looking into it," Michelle Ellison, Chief of the Federal Communication Commission Enforcement Bureau, said in an email regarding the Philadelphia incident.
Although the device is illegal, bus riders are not the only ones who have wanted to shut people up using a jammer. The FCC has investigated the use of mobile phone jammers in schools and theatres. Some administrators apparently think a mobile phone jammer would be an easy way to stop students from using their cell phones during school hours. Theatres find mobile phone jammers appealing to prevent people from using phones during shows.
"While some people who use jammers may think they are only silencing loud conversations or disabling unwanted GPS tracking, they could also be preventing a scared teenager from calling 911, an elderly person from placing an urgent call to a doctor, or a rescue team from homing in on the location of a severely injured person," Ellison said. "The price for one person's moment of peace or privacy, could very well be the safety and well-being of others."
Jammers are a problem because they block licensing frequencies that are not owned by the jammer and it is illegal to interfere with any licensing frequency. Jammers can block signals within a few dozen to hundreds of metres. The FCC is most concerned with jammers blocking emergency responders communication with callers.
People in the US typically buy jammers online. The FCC is trying hard to prevent other countries from selling and shipping jammers to America, but some jammers slip through the mail. Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Australia do not allow mobile phone jammers either.
In October 2011, the FCC warned 20 online retailers about the illegality of selling and marketing signal jamming devices to Americans. But, with a quick Google search, an American can order a mobile phone jammer online.
"Our actions should send a strong message to retailers of signal jamming devices in the US is illegal and that the FCC will vigorously prosecute these violations," Ellison said in a press release.
The US tries hard to keep jammers out, but the network blockers can be manufactured and exported in the US. The FCC said it was not aware of any mobile phone jammer manufacturing violations in the US.
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