Wireless Carriers Oppose Bid to Jam Contraband Mobile Phones in Prisons

By Bryce Baschuk  


Wireless carriers rejected proposals to jam wireless signals inside and around U.S. correctional facilities in reply comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission Aug. 23, arguing that jamming wireless signals is unlawful and could prevent legitimate wireless communications.

Their comments came in response to the FCC's May 1 notice of proposed rulemaking regarding contraband mobile phone use in prisons.

U.S. prison officials have said in filings with the FCC that the increased use of contraband mobile phones within correctional facilities present a “clear and present danger” to prison security and the public. Prisoners are using mobile phones to continue their criminal activities, harass victims, judges, prosecutors and prison officials, among other malicious activities, said the American Correctional Association (ACA) in an FCC filing.

CTIA - The Wireless Association “strongly opposes” the use of contraband mobile phones in prisons but said any requests by non-federal entities to jam wireless signals would be an illegal violation of the Communications Act. Carriers also noted that the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration had previously denounced non-federal mobile phone jamming because it could prevent the transmission of 911 calls and hinder law enforcement communications.

ACA acknowledged that it is illegal for private entities to jam wireless signals but said the FCC should permit the jamming of illegal mobile phones used inside correctional facilities, including those making 911 calls. In a separate FCC filing, CellAntenna, a communications company that detects contraband devices in prisons, said prisoner access to wireless 911 services is “not a public benefit” and inmates already have access to 911 services via prison landlines.

Carriers sought to deter the FCC from considering other proposals to limit spectrum use, including the establishment of wireless exclusion zones in and around correctional facilities. Requiring such “quiet zones” would “unnecessarily complicate network design” and force carriers to re-engineer their networks “potentially to the detriment of consumers,” said CTIA in its filing. ACA said quiet zones would create a “modest diminution of rights” that would be far outweighed by the benefits to the public, according to its FCC filing.

Carriers Seek Court Orders

Carriers said any requirements to terminate contraband devices must be conducted pursuant to court orders rather than from prison official requests. The FCC's NPRM asked whether carriers should terminate service to contraband prison devices with a “qualifying request from an authorized party.” Permitting prison officials to require carriers to deactivate devices would place carriers at “considerable risk” because such devices may include those that are lawfully operated within the prison or nearby, AT&T said in its FCC filing. Instead, the FCC should require notice from a court of relevant jurisdiction in order to avoid liability issues if a carrier inadvertently terminates service to lawful and legitimate subscribers, CTIA said.

It is “reprehensible” for carriers to require a court order before terminating service to contraband mobile phones, ACA's filing said. “We understand cellular carriers' concerns regarding liability and encourage the commission to adopt rules granting them protections while acting in good faith and for public safety,” ACA wrote the FCC. The Boeing Company said in a separate filing that repetitive FCC orders or court orders for each suspension request are not required and “will inherently delay the processing of suspension requests.”

Streamline Spectrum Jamming Agreements

Carriers said they supported the FCC's proposal to streamline requirements for companies that monitor and disrupt contraband mobile phone communications, also known as managed access system operators, that seek to lease spectrum from wireless providers. AT&T suggested further streamlining the commission's spectrum leasing procedures by designating an initial lease agreement as a “lead application” and then permitting amendments to add any new call signs and location coordinates, the filing said. AT&T also urged the FCC to offer carriers liability protections if 911 or E911 services are blocked. Verizon said AT&T's proposal “has merit” and could further streamline the lease agreement process.

ACA said it backed carriers' calls to streamline the application process for spectrum lease agreements but urged the commission not to consider managed access systems as the “best solution” to solving the problem of contraband mobile phone use due to their limitations and costs.

Carriers urged the FCC not to adopt any proposals that interfere with spectrum leasing agreements and said they opposed Boeing's request to directly license managed access system providers to individually operate their systems. Boeing previously argued that a spectrum leasing approach could permit carriers to withhold spectrum or charge for access to the spectrum needed to operate managed access systems, according to a separate FCC filing.

CTIA submitted that there is “no basis for the commission to adopt prescriptive regulations in the name of forcing wireless carriers to cooperate with managed access providers and correctional authorities.” Similarly, Verizon said Boeing's proposal would “effectively cut carriers out of the process” and prevent them from protecting their networks from harmful interference.