Philadelphia Man Jams Cell-Phone Use on City Bus

Published May 31, 2016

It’s literally a one-sided debate that has touched off a nationwide technology discussion on just how far some people will go to stop cell-phone conversations.

A man used a jammer to block cell-phone conversations while riding on a city bus, a Philadelphia TV station reported in March.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, federal law prohibits the marketing, sale, or use of a transmitter designed to interfere with wireless communication. Jammer use is allowed only “in a very limited context” by the federal government.

Jammers Don’t Make Distinctions
The FCC says jammers are outlawed because they don’t distinguish between annoying cell phone personal chatter and emergency service calls. Using a jammer could result in jail time, the FCC stated.

But that man in Philadelphia isn’t the only person to be annoyed by cell phone chatter. Lauren Emberson, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, coauthored a study of “halfalogue,” a phone conversation where only one-half of the dialogue is audible.

“When I was commuting by bus to school in undergrad, I found myself distracted by the cell-phone conversations around me,” Emberson says. “I started to wonder why this was. I didn’t want to listen into their conversations. I wanted to be reading, doing homework, or listening to music. In fact, I felt like I couldn’t do these other activities because of the distracting conversations.”

So Emberson helped conduct a study on the effect of “halfalogue.”.

Emberson recorded two pairs of female college roommates having cell-phone conversations where both sides of the conversation could be heard and then when only one side was heard. She replayed the conversations to volunteers who performed tasks on a computer that required attention, such as tracking a moving dot using a computer mouse.

Published in 2010 in Psychological Science, the study found hearing only half a conversation was more distracting. She thinks that’s because the human brain is more apt to ignore predictable events and halfalogue conversations are unpredictable.

Jamming Isn’t Legal
Although others’ cell phone calls may be distracting, technology experts say jamming them isn’t allowed.

Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for technology rights, agrees with jamming being illegal.

“There is a real reason for not allowing other people to jam people’s phone calls,” said Lee Tien, an EFF senior staff attorney. “The general idea that you should not be able to shut people up is something we agree with. Do we want the government to do allow this, willy-nilly? The answer is no.”

Tom Gantert ([email protected]) is senior capitol correspondent at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.

Internet Info

“Cell-Phone Jammer Admits to ‘Taking the Law Into His Own Hands,'” The Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2012:

“GPS, Wi-Fi, and Cell-Phone Jammers FAQs,” The Federal Communications Commission:

“Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech Is More Distracting,” Lauren Emberson, Psychological Science, October, 21, 2010: