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Will technology spawn cell phone backlash?

A variety of new technologies are being developed to address what some contend are mobile annoyances.

Image Sensing Systems was quietly going about its business making roadway traffic-management devices about two months ago when the king of Jordan called to complain about cell phones ringing in mosques while he prayed.

King Abdullah was beside himself. He knew someone at the Minnesota-based company and called to suggest creating a product that could block cell phones from ringing.

Within two weeks, the company had a working prototype for King Abdullah. Word got out about its product. This week, Image Sensing Systems said it had taken orders to ship about 5,000 of these devices to customers around the world.

With the rise in the number of cell phones on the planet, there is a parallel increase in frustration over where people use them. While cell-phone jamming is illegal in the United States and elsewhere, some countries, most notably Canada, are considering laws that would let people bar cell phones from being used on their property.

Other signs of a backlash against mobile phones have emerged elsewhere. Although banned for their potential effects on safety rather than as an annoyance, handheld cell phones are illegal to use while driving in New York.

But from the mosques in Jordan to the boardrooms of a giant U.S. entertainment company, businesspeople and private citizens aren't waiting for governments to act. A variety of new technologies are being developed to address what some contend are mobile annoyances. Although the rest of the telecommunications sector is sinking like a stone, the business of cell-phone jamming is booming.

By some estimates, this small industry has seen at least a tripling in sales this year.

"Ten years ago, if someone was on a cell phone, you figured it must have been an important call because only doctors or big businessmen had them," said Mary Beth Griffin, vice president of North Carolina-based BlueLinx, which is creating a device that would automatically turn off the ringers of cell phones. "But now they are so light, so portable, that everyone has one. It's less that people are trying to be rude, but that they forgot they are carrying this five-ounce thing in their pockets."

BlueLinx expects to sell about a million of its devices once they are released, she said. At least two movie chains, plus many theaters where live plays are presented, are among those clamoring for orders, she said.

Redmond, Wash.-based Zetron is celebrating the fourth anniversary of the introduction of a device that detects cell phones within 100 feet and can be programmed to alert officials or trigger a recorded message requesting that the owner leave the phone outside. Business for the device is picking up, a company spokesman said.

One high-profile owner of these types of devices is actor Christopher Reeve of "Superman" fame. Reeve is paralyzed and his breathing is assisted by a respirator. His voice is faint as a result. Mobile phones sometimes drown out his speech.

Other companies also are cashing in. NetLine Communications Technologies, an Israeli company, says it is selling record numbers of its C-Guard Cellular FireWall mobile-phone jamming equipment, especially in the United States, where jamming cell phones is illegal.

The Federal Communications Commission has made cell phone jamming punishable by an $11,000-per-day fine. Yet, despite the possibility of a huge financial punishment, NetLine executive Gil Israeli said the United States remains one of the company's strongest markets.

The company's list of U.S. clients includes a major entertainment company, a recording studio in New Jersey and one state's House of Representatives, he claims.

"Although there is no official approval, they want to do it," Israeli said.

In Canada, lawmakers are mulling whether to lift a ban on cell phone jamming. A recent survey of Canadian citizens found 43 percent in favor of allowing cell phone jammers in theaters, hospitals and other public places. A decision on lifting the ban is expected in the fall.

The North American Free Trade Agreement mandates that the FCC review its policy about banning cell-phone blocking equipment if Canada changes its law, said Bill Sowell, vice president of business development for Image Sensing Systems.

"I don't think the FCC will overturn the law. It's difficult to legislate common courtesy. If people would put their phones on vibrate, then that's a different story," he said. "The problem we really have is that everybody now wants information immediately. They feel that it's their God-given right."