First responders in a jam?

One vendor launches a challenge of FCC rules that keep cell-jamming equipment from state and local agencies

A Florida company that sells cellular-jamming equipment is challenging Federal Communications Commission rules prohibiting state and local governments from using the devices.

'We only market to the federal government, because that's what the law allows,' said Howard Melamed, president of Cell- Antenna Corp. in Coral Springs.

But state and local police departments are also interested in the technology as a way to block the remote detonation of bombs and to control communications in sensitive areas. Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Act of 1934 and FCC rules make such jamming devices illegal except for feds. So CellAntenna in April filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, asking to have the law declared unconstitutional.

Melamed said he is all in favor of FCC enforcement for keeping cellular jammers out of the hands of the general public. But, he said, they are a legitimate tool for fighting terrorism that should be entrusted to the state and local police.

'If we trust them with bullets, I think we can trust them with jamming equipment,' he said.

FCC would not comment on the suit or on the rules excluding state and local agencies from the technology.

CellAntenna's primary business is antennas and repeaters for boosting and extending cellular signals. But it also sells three products intended to block cellular signals. The CJAM 100 is a low-power, portable personal jamming device that blocks signals within a 15-meter radius, but is particularly effective at distances up to 12 feet. The CJAM 500 is an adjustable model with a range of up to 30 meters, intended to block signals in room-sized areas. The CJAM 1000 is a high-powered device that can block up to three microwave frequencies within a half-mile radius.

The devices block only the downlink from the cell site to the phone and do not interfere with the phone's uplink. They are intended to prevent remote detonation of bombs, to block communications in hostage negotiations and raids, and to ensure against data leakage, the company says.

According to an FCC public notice issued in June, however, homeland security isn't the only reason customers show interest in the technology.

'Recently, the FCC has seen a growing interest in the devices,' the notice said. 'Inquiries about the use of cellular jammers are often accompanied by comments that the use of wireless phones in public places is disruptive and annoying.'

The FCC's position: no dice. No matter how annoying, you cannot legally block cell phone use. But some vendors apparently are targeting that market.

'Advertisements for cellular jammers suggest that the devices may be used on commuter trains, in theaters, hotels, restaurants and other locations the public frequents,' FCC said.

The 1934 law and later FCC rules prohibiting such use carry fines of up to $11,000 a day. Only the federal government is exempt from FCC rules on radio devices, and the commission actively enforces the ban. In October 2004 it issued a citation to a San Juan, Puerto Rico, company for selling 23 jammers to the island's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The department allegedly was using the Israeli-made devices to block cell phone use inside the Guayama Correctional Facility.

The military uses such devices to neutralize the improvised explosive devices that have taken such a toll on convoys in Iraq. Lately though, Melamed said, his company has been flooded with inquiries from state and local police departments.

'I believe the London subway bombings last July had something to do with it,' as well as the 2004 bombings in Madrid, he said.

Melamed acted after receiving a letter of inquiry last summer as part of an FCC investigation into the sale of jamming devices to state and local governments.

'Antiquated position'

In October he sent a letter to Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, complaining of what he called an 'antiquated position' that 'will result in the death of our citizens as well as law enforcement officers.'

He cited wording in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 that makes the Homeland Security Department the lead agency in identifying and providing local jurisdictions with the technology to fight terrorism. He said that 'outfitting our local and state police with jamming devices is vital to the DHS goal in fighting terrorism.'

Assistant secretary for infrastructure protection Bob Stephan wrote back three months later, thanking Melamed for his concern and assuring him that the department was 'diligently investigating' the issue.

DHS spokespeople contacted by GCN would not comment on the issue.

'My next step was to file a lawsuit,' Melamed said.

FCC advised him that he could file a petition challenging the rules, but it could take months before the commission would decide whether to even consider it.

'I had originally written a petition, but I decided the time frame was wrong,' he said. His lawyer told him the quickest path was a constitutional challenge in the courts. A request for a declaratory judgment forces the commission to defend its position.

The suit claims that, according to the Homeland Security Act, 'Congress clearly intended for state and local law enforcement agencies and first responders to have ready access to advanced technical equipment to be used in the defense of the nation against terrorism.'

It claims that excluding state and local agencies violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment and that Congress, with the Homeland Security Act, implicitly repealed the restrictions in the Communications Act.

State and local law enforcement agencies will be monitoring the suit's progress.

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