How to still the warbling and beeping

Canada contemplates cellphone silencers

If you've ever wanted to shove that jerk over at the next table, yapping into his cellphone, into his own personal cone of silence, this will sound like an idea whose time has come: The Canadian government is considering legalizing cellphone silencers - currently restricted to police and security forces - for a wider circle of users.

Silencers could be used to restore theaters, cinemas, restaurants, and other public spaces to the relative calm, if not silence, they knew before cellphones came into wide use. Ottawa has invited all interested parties to submit their views and comments on the issue by July 12.

The prospect of stilling the warbling and bleating of phones in restaurants, theaters, houses of worship, and other public spaces may sound heavenly.

But many experts see silencers as a technological solution to an etiquette problem - and not as simple as it may seem. "There's some fairly hefty international law regarding use of radio spectrum," says Ted Campbell, general manager of the Radio Advisory Board of Canada, a technical-standards body that has petitioned the government in favor of the status quo. "Jamming has always been one of those taboo areas." Communications law has long guaranteed licensees the right to use their sliver of the radio spectrum "without causing or suffering harmful interference."

David Warnes, the Industry Canada official in charge of the consultation, is excruciatingly neutral: "We have no predetermined position on this." The government is not considering allowing unlicensed use of jammers, however; people won't be able to just buy devices off the shelf and install them in their places of business.

But it is noteworthy that Canada is even considering the issue after both the United States and Britain have explicitly affirmed their opposition to jamming. In the US, a longstanding FCC ban on silencers was recently reinforced by Congress. Mr. Campbell observes that Canadians seem to be taking the prospect of what could be construed as a constraint on their freedom of expression "with some greater degree of equanimity than our counterparts to the south would."

Let the public decide

If the consultation here were to indicate strong public support for legalizing jammers, the government could decide to introduce legislation to that end.

The consultation was prompted by pressure from industry groups, but not necessarily the ones you might think. It's partly the manufacturers of silencers seeking to broaden their markets, and partly private security firms seeking to ensure the confidentiality of corporate boardrooms.

There may be a little economic nationalism at work here, too. "The Department [of Industry] is aware of Canadian companies who wish to establish a broader niche market for these devices. Some of these companies are currently doing Canadian software research and development." Ottawa is always ready to lend an ear, at least, to a Canadian success-story-in-the-making.

On the other side are groups like the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, who have been urging Industry Canada "to be more declaratory" and reaffirm the current ban, Mr. Warnes says.

After conducting some polling research and taking measures to get the "pulse of the public," as Warnes puts it, "we were convinced the issue was mature enough" for a public consultation to be in order.

"It's a little early to say what our position is," says Dr. Peter Barrett, president of the Canadian Medical Association in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. "If jamming was to take place, we need to be aware of it. A physician on call in a restaurant would need to know if he's not going to be available."

A jammer is itself a radio device, and many current jammers have a big "fuzzy" signal that blocks other devices on that frequency - as a truck can knock a small car off the road. Jammers often produce "spillage"; a device that blocks phones in a restaurant could render useless the phone of a police officer patrolling the street outside. If your interest in silencing cellphones is to protect other electronic equipment, as in hospitals, adding more radio waves to the environment with a jammer is not the way to go, says Campbell.

Marc Choma, a spokesman for CWTA, says, "Use of jammers is illegal in Canada, the US, and many other countries. Our position is that it should remain illegal." He acknowledges some lapses of decorum with the new technology. "It will take time for people to learn to manage their phones properly. It's a matter of etiquette. Society, not government, will look after that."

He defends the public consultation process as "part of the way we do things here." But he defines freedom to use cellphones free of jamming as a public-safety issue. He notes that 3 million 911 calls were made from Canada's 9 million cellphones last year. "Wireless phones improve people's lives and safety," he says.

Wireless investments at risk

The larger issue, though, is that companies have invested billions of dollars in the licenses to provide cellphone service, and jammers that routinely erode the usefulness of that service would devalue those investments.

Experience may raise the standard of cellphone etiquette. April Kintzel, director of information technology and services at the Banff Centre in Alberta, sees society starting to swing into enforcement mode. "I think people will rebel" at boorish use of phones in public by giving offenders "a tap on the shoulder" to let them know they are out of line, she says.

Damjan Jocic, a consultant with Cirrus Technologies in Montreal, says, "current jamming technologies are not mature enough to release" to a larger public. But he foresees "smarter" jamming devices that will be more acceptable to the public - devices that can shift a phone from ring to vibration mode, or can allow 911 calls in and out, or can activate themselves long enough to interrupt a call and then turn themselves off.

"There's a stillness that is priceless," he says. "Right now, people aren't finding a place where they can be still."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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