Brief Update on Wireless Microphones: Where Mike Marcus and I Disagree

As Mike Marcus pointed out in the comments on my previous wireless microphone piece and on his blog, he and I disagree on the advisability of allowing prisons to jam cell phone communication.

Let me begin by saying that Mike has both tremendous engineering chops as well as a thorough understanding of the FCC and the politics therein. He worked there for some ungodly amount of time in the Office of Engineering and Technology, and was a critical force in pushing the 1989 rule changes to Part 15 that made the unlicensed revolution possible. His comments are not to be taken lightly here.

Where Mike and I disagree is not so much on the primary data but on how much weight to assign things. This is not uncommon in the messy world of policy, and is why even people generally aligned with one another can disagree strongly on important matters of policy (and why I hate the tendency for people to start calling each other nasty personal names over such disagreements). That’s why it’s important to see where and how we disagree.

In addition to his blog post, Mike also consulted for the state correction facilities on their Petition for Rulemaking (“Prison jamming Petition” or “PJP”). Read through that and his blog post and we come up with the following:

1) We both agree this is a hard engineering problem. Whereas I am more skeptical (based on the folks I’ve talked to) that this can be done in a way that is effective, affordable, and without interference, Mike thinks it is possible for some prison environments. I stress this last because, as the PJP points out, even the most optimistic projection for the current level of technology makes it doubtful this will work in detention facilities in high-density population areas.

2) Which brings us to major point of disagreement #2, how much will this really help and is the trade off worth the risk. Mike readily acknowledges that this is no “magic bullet” that would solve the security problems. The question is whether it does enough to be worth taking the risk of interference and the risk that jammers will proliferate. I think no, Mike thinks yes. Part of the reason I think this is a bad idea is because my experience with bright line rules tells me that where you have so many people interested in cell phone jamming it is inevitable that whatever protections are put in place will be whittled away over time. In addition, in a messy field like engineering, we disagree a lot about how easy/hard it would be to neutralize jamming, a critical question on the cost/benefit analysis.

3) Finally, we both agree that the wireless industry needs to step up to the plate and work with detention authorities to make solutions other than jamming affordable for for prisons, and that the FCC needs to address the problem of charges for prison calls made under proper supervision.

I expect Mike’s well reasoned and narrow disagreement will be manipulated by those who want to exploit this for their own profit (yes, I’m looking at you CellAntenna). That’s unfortunate. I hope that the wireless industry and correction facilities can work together to develop real solutions to the problem of contraband cell phone use before Congress pushes through legislation that would do more for CellAntenna’s bottom line than it would for prison security.

Stay tuned . . . .

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