I once had, what I took to be, a brilliant idea. Develop a device that jams cell phones by broadcasting a short-range signal in the same frequency range that they use. Perfect for libraries, theathers, and nice restaurants where you'd not want some kid's cell phone ringing with J-Z's latest hit when their mom calls.
As with most good, simple ideas - its already been done.
While it didn't turn out to be a great business opportunity for me, it does make for a fantastic technology and policy case study. This has ESD 10 written all over it.
The New York Time's reports on this story
There are regulations from the 1930s banning people from messing with government-licenced spectrum. Probably made great sense at the time. Technology has advanced though, but the regulations have not become more sophisticated along with it. The regulations make cell-phone jamming technology, even on private property, illegal.
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.
So why don't we rewrite these clearly out-dated regulations to match with today's technological reality? I would assume there's several reasons. Lack of capacity at the FCC and institutional inertia both probably play a role.
Trouble is the politically influential telecom companies love these antiquated regulations. We've got a classic Olsonian collective action problem here. The telecom companies really hate the idea of cell phone jammers. Jammers would reduce the number of minutes we spend racking up our cell phone bills, costing them millions. While on the other hand, the rest of us would welcome jammers in certain public situations. We just don't care enough to make a stink about it. Concentrated costs, diffuse benefits.
"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."
While you can buy jammers online now, the demand for them hasn't taken off because they're illegal. Demand for cell phone blocking services has put market forces to work though. Firms are devising ways to provide the cell jamming service, without running foul of the regulations.
Bluelinx, based in Charlotte, N.C., is developing a system called Q-Zone (the Q standing for quiet) that uses Bluetooth wireless technology - in transmitters and imbedded into cellphones - to put phones equipped with Q-Zone software into silent or vibrate mode when they are taken into a specified zone.
Jeff Griffin, Bluelinx's president, said he was trying to sign up wireless providers and establishments like cafes and theaters. He said he hopes to start using the equipment in the next few years. Unlike jammers, he said, his call-blocking system would be optional for cellphone users, who could turn it on or off.
Its also got those lovable MIT Media Lab folks working on the project.
A similar system is being developed by Stefan Marti and Chris Schmandt, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. Their project, called Autonomous Interactive Intermediaries, uses technology like speech recognition to screen calls to determine when a phone should ring, and even subtle, silent visual cues to replace cellphone rings or vibrations - say, an animatronic rabbit or parrot turning toward you in a room to signal that you have a call.
In Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, he claims that you can use four types of forces to regulate issues in a society: Cultural, Legal, Archictural, and Market. We've got people trying to use three of four here to control the annoying cellphone problem.
A different approach - by design or happenstance, but altogether legal - is to block cellphone signals through construction techniques. (An F.C.C. spokeswoman said the commission had no regulations dealing with building materials.) Like most cellphone-blocking methods, many of these ideas were developed long ago for military and espionage purposes, said Bill Sewell, senior vice president of DMJM Technology, who has spent years designing radio-secure areas for the United States government.
Mr. Sewell said the methods used by his firm are simple: metal mesh screens tuned to the frequencies of radio waves are mounted inside the wall. They are also inexpensive, at about $15 a square foot, he said.
"I was at church some time ago and a lady's cellphone went off and the entire church froze," Mr. Griffin said. "Meanwhile, she couldn't find her phone and was so embarrassed. It's that kind of circumstance we're trying to fix." ...
... there is a last resort: personal responsibility. "There are always going to be rude people," Mr. Larson said. "We just hope they will learn to turn their cellphones off at the right time."
...legal restrictions (like a law prohibiting cellphone use during performances, enacted by the New York City Council last year).