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Company challenges FCC rules on cell phone-jamming gear

A Florida company seeks to change FCC rules against selling such equipment to local and state agencies.

A small Florida company is taking on the Federal Communications Commission to change regulations prohibiting the sale of equipment used to scramble cell phone signals to local and state agencies.

The company, CellAntenna, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 11th Circuit in Atlanta on November 22 challenging the Communications Act of 1934, which is enforced by the FCC. The 1934 act and the FCC regulations that go along with it prohibit the use of cellular and radio frequency-jamming equipment, except by federal agencies. This means that local and state officials are not permitted to use such equipment, which could be used to help prevent terrorist attacks.

"In order to effectively and safely execute a raid on a house, you need the element of surprise."
--Mathew Lamita, police department, Dearborn, Mich.

CellAntenna argues that the Communications Act and the FCC regulations that interpret the law are unconstitutional because they are in conflict with the Homeland Security Act of 2002, adopted by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

It's widely known in the intelligence and law enforcement communities that cell phones can be used to remotely detonate some types of bombs. The electrical properties for most batteries used today in cell phones provide enough energy to produce the necessary spark or power to detonate a blasting cap or a modified electrical match, which is often used in plastic explosives. Also, built-in alarms and timing mechanisms available on even low-end cell phones make it easy to use even the simplest and cheapest mobile devices as tools to set off bombs.

Cell phones are believed to have been used in the Madrid train bombings in 2004. And they've been used effectively during the past few years by insurgents to trigger roadside explosions in Iraq. Equipment made by companies such as CellAntenna that can jam or block cellular signals is used by the U.S. military in Iraq to help protect convoys traveling through known trouble spots.

But here in the United States only federal government agencies are allowed to use cell phone scrambling equipment. Local and state law enforcement agencies, which would be the first responders to a terrorist attack here at home, are prohibited by law from obtaining such gear.

"It just doesn't make much sense that the FBI can use this equipment, but that the local and state governments, which the Homeland Security Act has acknowledged as being an important part of combating terrorism, cannot," said Howard Melamed, chief executive of CellAntenna. "We give local police guns and other equipment to protect the public, but we can't trust them with cellular-jamming equipment? It doesn't make sense."

It is this point that is a key element in CellAntenna's argument in its case against the FCC.

"Whereas the FCC prohibits the sale of radio frequency and cellular jammers to state and local police departments, the Homeland Security Act consistently and repeatedly directs the Department of Homeland Security to take whatever measures are necessary to empower local law enforcement agencies and first responders in the fight against global terrorism."

Other applications
Indeed, the Homeland Security Act specifically states that one of the functions of the Department of Homeland Security is to research, develop, test and evaluate for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies equipment that can be used "in counterterrorism, including devices and technology to disable terrorist devices."

While CellAntenna has based much of its case around the use of its gear to prevent terrorism, Melamed acknowledged the gear could be very useful to law enforcement officials in other capacities. For example, jamming equipment is used in Latin American and Caribbean prisons to prevent inmates from using cell phones to run criminal operations while they serve jail time. Prisons in the U.S., which are mostly run by the state, are prohibited from using such gear.

Mathew Lamita, a corporal with the Dearborn Police Department in Michigan agrees that cell phone-jamming equipment could be a big help. In addition to potentially disabling a bomb, he said, scrambling cell phone communications during a hostage crisis could also be useful.

Where the technology would likely get the most use is during narcotics raids, when officers could use equipment to locally disable cell phones and walkie-talkies used by lookouts in neighborhoods where drug busts are common, he added.

"In order to effectively and safely execute a raid on a house, you need the element of surprise," he said. "A single tip from someone calling on a cell phone or a walkie-talkie down the street can compromise the entire raid."

While federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI or the Department of the Treasury are allowed by law to use cell phone-jamming equipment, Lamita said, it makes more sense for local police departments to have access to this equipment because they are often the first agents on the scene during a bust.

"We work as a team with federal officials," he said. "When the FBI plans a bust, they don't show up with a SWAT team of their own. They deputize the local authorities to help them execute the raid. And we're the ones that go in first."

"Local law enforcement is a logical place to begin the discussion of who should have access to this technology."
--Howard Melamed, CEO of CellAntenna

But loosening restrictions on who is able to jam or block cell phone signals could be a slippery slope, considering that commercial entities as well as individuals who find it annoying to listen to people gabbing on their cell phones in public may want to disrupt cell phone signals. For example, movie theaters may want to use the technology to keep people from receiving calls during a film. Restaurants or commuter-train services also may want to limit the use of cell phones.

Melamed said he doesn't expect the FCC to allow just anyone to jam cell phone signals, but to simply allow local law enforcement officials to buy valuable tools for fighting crime.

"We don't want thousands of people running around pressing a button to wipe out cell phone signals," he said. "Local law enforcement is a logical place to begin the discussion of who should have access to this technology. Then we can look at other places where it might make sense to use it in a controlled setting."

Melamed also said that the technology used to jam signals would not interfere with most cell phone subscribers' service, because the signals used to jam the cell phone reception is targeted and localized to affect only a certain area.

The company offers three models of devices used for jamming cell phone signals. The CJAM 100 is a low-power, portable personal jamming device that blocks signals in a 15-meter radius. The CJAM 500 has a range of up to 30 meters. It's intended to block signals within a single room. The CJAM 1000 is a high-powered device that can block up to three microwave frequencies within a half-mile radius.

CellAntenna is not asking for monetary damages in its lawsuit. It simply hopes the court will find the FCC's regulations and the 1934 act unconstitutional.

Still, a judgment in CellAntenna's favor could mean big bucks for the company. CellAntenna already sells its gear to some federal agencies, including the Secret Service. Opening up the sale of its equipment, which goes for about $15,000 apiece, to thousands of local and state agencies across the country would be a boon for business. CellAntenna wouldn't be the only company to benefit. Other large companies including Motorola, Tyco and Honeywell also provide radio frequency-jamming equipment.

The FCC declined to comment on the lawsuit. The agency has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. But a representative confirmed that CellAntenna has never attempted to go through the agency's procedural channels to have its rules on cell phone jamming changed. CellAntenna could have filed a petition for rule-making with the FCC, which would likely have opened the question to the public of whether to sell jamming equipment to local and state agencies. The five commissioners of the FCC would have then voted.

Jeffrey Sarrow, the attorney arguing the case for CellAntenna, said he advised his client to sue the government rather than petition the FCC because he believed it would result in a quicker outcome. That said, the case was originally filed in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida in April of this year. The judge ruled the case was not in the proper court, and so the case was refiled in the appellate court. The case could take up to a year to be argued and for a decision to be handed down from the appeals court.