One afternoon in early September, an architect boarded his commuter train and became a cellphone vigilante. He sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was “blabbing away” into her phone.Perhaps this is a good example of platforms. We created a platform in which the cell phone frequency was reserved for cell phone companies. But like most human-created platforms it is artificial. So it's possible to sabotage it. Then the question becomes whether it is worth the social cost to police it. And that becomes, among other things, a battle between business and others. The cell phone companies are fighting to keep the platform sacred. Here's what they say.
“She was using the word ‘like’ all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl,” said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.
Andrew reached into his shirt pocket and pushed a button on a black device the size of a cigarette pack. It sent out a powerful radio signal that cut off the chatterer’s cellphone transmission — and any others in a 30-foot radius.
“She kept talking into her phone for about 30 seconds before she realized there was no one listening on the other end,” he said. His reaction when he first discovered he could wield such power? “Oh, holy moly! Deliverance.”
As cellphone use has skyrocketed, making it hard to avoid hearing half a conversation in many public places, a small but growing band of rebels is turning to a blunt countermeasure: the cellphone jammer, a gadget that renders nearby mobile devices impotent.
The technology is not new, but overseas exporters of jammers say demand is rising and they are sending hundreds of them a month into the United States — prompting scrutiny from federal regulators and new concern last week from the cellphone industry. The buyers include owners of cafes and hair salons, hoteliers, public speakers, theater operators, bus drivers and, increasingly, commuters on public transportation.
The development is creating a battle for control of the airspace within earshot. And the damage is collateral. Insensitive talkers impose their racket on the defenseless, while jammers punish not just the offender, but also more discreet chatterers.
“If anything characterizes the 21st century, it’s our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people,” said James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. “The cellphone talker thinks his rights go above that of people around him, and the jammer thinks his are the more important rights.”
The jamming technology works by sending out a radio signal so powerful that phones are overwhelmed and cannot communicate with cell towers. The range varies from several feet to several yards, and the devices cost from $50 to several hundred dollars. Larger models can be left on to create a no-call zone.
Using the jammers is illegal in the United States. The radio frequencies used by cellphone carriers are protected, just like those used by television and radio broadcasters.
The Federal Communication Commission says people who use cellphone jammers could be fined up to $11,000 for a first offense. Its enforcement bureau has prosecuted a handful of American companies for distributing the gadgets — and it also pursues their users.
Cellphone carriers pay tens of billions of dollars to lease frequencies from the government with an understanding that others will not interfere with their signals. And there are other costs on top of that. Verizon Wireless, for example, spends $6.5 billion a year to build and maintain its network.
“It’s counterintuitive that when the demand is clear and strong from wireless consumers for improved cell coverage, that these kinds of devices are finding a market,” said Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon spokesman. The carriers also raise a public safety issue: jammers could be used by criminals to stop people from communicating in an emergency.
In evidence of the intensifying debate over the devices, CTIA, the main cellular phone industry association, asked the F.C.C. on Friday to maintain the illegality of jamming and to continue to pursue violators. It said the move was a response to requests by two companies for permission to use jammers in specific situations, like in jails.