How one Dallas store owner illegally blocked her employees' calls

The FCC said the store owner 'offered to sell the signal jammer to the agent. The agent declined the offer and issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation ... that the operation of a signal jammer is illegal.'

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

February 22, 2022

4 Min Read
How one Dallas store owner illegally blocked her employees' calls

Cellular signal jammers are illegal, but one Dallas store owner decided to use one anyway. Her apparent goal? To stop her employees from wasting time on their phones.

The situation – outlined in a recent FCC report – helps to highlight the somewhat murky world of intentional cellular interference, including the overt and explicit use of commonly available cellphone jammers.

According to the FCC's report, an AT&T employee filed a complaint with the commission about the possible use of a phone jammer near Ravi's Import Warehouse in Dallas. According to its website, the massive store offers a wide range of inexpensive goods.

As a result of the complaint, the FCC – the US government agency in charge of allocating and managing the nation's airwaves – went to investigate.

"After arriving at the company's location, the [FCC] agent spoke with Anita Bhatia, who stated that she was the owner of Ravi's," the FCC wrote. "Bhatia admitted to the agent that Ravi's used a signal jammer and did so as a means of preventing its employees from using mobile phones while at work."

Figure 1: (Source: Lyndon Stratford/Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: Lyndon Stratford/Alamy Stock Photo)

But that wasn't quite the end of the story.

"Bhatia further stated that she had disposed of the jammer shortly before the agent's arrival. Bhatia declined to voluntarily retrieve and surrender the device to the agent, and she also refused to identify the specific dumpster in which she had disposed of the device. Instead, the [FCC] Bureau concluded, based on Ravi's admission, Bhatia offered to sell the signal jammer to the agent. The agent declined the offer and issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation informing Ravi's that the operation of a signal jammer is illegal."

Although the wisdom of attempting to sell an illegal cell phone jammer to an FCC agent is questionable, the fine that the FCC levied against Ravi's is not. The agency rejected Ravi's appeal and voted earlier this year to impose a $22,000 fine on the business "for operating a signal jamming device in violation of the Commission's rules."

(That fine includes $17,000 for the violation and another $5,000 for the owner's "egregious conduct" in offering to sell the device to an FCC's agent, according to the agency.)

"When it comes to signal jammers, the Communications Act is clear. You can't make them, import them, sell them, ship them, or operate them," said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement issued alongside the agency's vote to approve the fine. "It doesn't matter if you're using them in a business, a classroom, a home or a vehicle. Unless you are operating under a limited exemption for federal law enforcement, they are not allowed. The reason for this is obvious. Unauthorized signal jammers interfere with the authorized use of spectrum. They can disrupt the wireless signals we count on to power so much in our daily lives and reach emergency services."

Of the fine, she said: "It makes clear that if you are using unauthorized jamming equipment, we will find you and hold you accountable."

It's worth noting that signal jammers can be used by law enforcement in some situations. Moreover, there's an ongoing debate about whether they should be allowed in US prisons. Some state corrections department officials have called for federal legislation that would allow such uses. They point to examples where prisoners have been able to illegally use phones, such as multi-millionaire hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli – known as "Pharma Bro" – using a contraband phone to run his hedge fund from prison. Contraband cell phones were also blamed for a prison riot in 2018.

In 2019, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, tried but failed to pass legislation that would allow state and federal penitentiaries to use the jamming devices.

According to a recent ABC report, the US wireless industry's main trade association continues to oppose cellular signal jammers in prisons. "Combatting the challenge of contraband phones requires a multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder approach. The wireless industry takes the issue seriously and actively supports the deployment of solutions, like Managed Access Systems, that intercept calls from contraband phones while protecting lawful communications," CTIA told the publication. "The industry has committed significant resources and funding to help corrections officials combat the problem and continues to work with policymakers at all levels of government to implement effective solutions."

The topic of signal jammers is a global one – and not every jammer has a nefarious purpose. For example, ZDNet recently reported on a father in France who used a signal jammer to prevent his children from accessing social media in the middle of the night, but inadvertently cut Internet access to his entire town.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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