NBC10 Philadelphia is reporting a cell phone vigilante named Eric who used a cell phone signal jammer to stop other riders from using their cell phones on the SEPTA bus route. When they caught up with him, he freely admitted to openly jamming the signals of other riders. When told such devices were illegal, Eric said it was his understanding it was a legal gray area. He couldn’t be more wrong. The FCC clearly states:
Federal law prohibits the operation, marketing, or sale of any type of jamming equipment, including devices that interfere with cellular and Personal Communication Services (PCS), police radar, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and wireless networking services (Wi-Fi).
If the FCC decides to pursue it, Eric can face fines up to $16,000 and possible jail time. Legal implications aside, the use of such a device can have devastating consequences if he happens to block an emergency call which results in a death. In some countries, holding up an electronic box with three antennas on a bus may result in a shoot first, ask questions later scenario.
How cell phone zappers work
A cell phone zapper works by overpowering the frequencies of other cell phones within its broadcast range. Cell phones are full duplex devices using one frequency to transmit and another to receive. Cell phone zappers work by blocking one or both signals. Although different cell phone carriers use different technology such as GSM or CDMA, all cell phones can be jammed since they all broadcast on known frequencies. It’s similar to holding down the talk button on a two way radio. The device Eric used appears to be a 2 watt unit with a range of 3-20 meters (10-65 feet). Such a jammer can easily block all signals on the bus as well as phones along the bus route. These zappers range in size with some as small as a cell phone which can easily be concealed in a pocket.
Illegal but readily available
Although cell phone zappers are illegal in the U.S., a quick Google search shows they are readily available from $125 to hundreds more for more powerful versions. The device Eric used appear to be a model selling for about $239.
The FCC weigh in
There has been so much buzz about cell phone jammers in the last few days that the FCC has weighed in to remind people about the illegal use of such jammers.
“In recent days, there have been various press reports about commuters using cell phone jammers to create a ‘quiet zone’ on buses or trains.” said FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Michele Ellison said in a statement. “We caution consumers that it is against the law to use a cell or GPS jammer or any other type of device that blocks, jams, or interferes with authorized communications, as well as to import, advertise, sell, or ship such a device. The FCC Enforcement Bureau has a zero tolerance policy in this area and will take aggressive action against violators.”
The Bay Area connection
Some in the San Francisco Bay Area may recall BART cutting off cell services for several hours back in August of 2011 to thwart protesters. That incident was a bit different as BART did not use a signal jammer to block signals. They simply turned off the cell network in their underground stations. That action resulted in widespread condemnation and made BART a target of the hacker group Anonymous who shut down one of BART’s web site.