Cellphones: Preserving a tool, combating a threat

In less than a generation, mobile communications have evolved from a luxury item to an essential element of everyday life. With nearly 7 billion devices in use, mobile communications are nearly ubiquitous, impacting the way we work and live throughout the world every day. As the use of mobile cellular communications continues to expand rapidly, the federal government and Maryland must continue to keep pace with emerging technologies and enact policies that better enable legitimate use of cellphones, while preventing their illegal use.

Businesses and individuals are using mobile communications to improve efficiency and get results even in some of the most remote places on Earth. In fact, a wireless network that was deployed last year in Alaska recently saved the lives of two fishermen stranded on a reef in a remote area on Yakutat Bay. While many people in urban areas take their cellular coverage for granted, for those in more out-of-the-way places, connectivity can be a matter of life and death.

Mobility communications have become far more than a business or personal tool. In many places today, mobile networks are helping to shape world events. At a pivotal point in the Arab Spring fight for liberation from Moammar Gadhafi, the dictator attempted to disable rebel communications by disconnecting the fiber that supported a large area of Libya. As a result, rebels were forced to use signal flags to communicate on the battlefield. However, within 72 hours, nearly 1 million users were brought back on line thanks to a transportable mobile network the size of a suitcase that was brought into the country.

The proliferation of mobile devices is fueled by the fundamental human need to communicate. And while serving this need on a global scale is critical to our economic recovery, in some cases it's essential that communication be captured or curtailed. Reports indicate that more than 1,300 contraband cellphones were found last fiscal year inside Maryland correctional facilities. More recently, according to federal indictments, a gang leader in Maryland was able to set up a lucrative smuggling operation from the Baltimore jail. He allegedly use multiple contraband cellphones to provide orders to subordinates and receive payments directly to his device while incarcerated. A total of 25 people were charged in the case, including 13 correctional officers.

This story is just one reminder that the use of contraband cellphones remains one of the most serious threats facing prisons in Maryland and across the nation. Through a program our company launched in Mississippi, over 3.5 million unauthorized calls have been prevented since the managed access system was deployed in 2010. This program has eliminated countless criminal conspiracies and threats to the community, and under our contract with Maryland — limited so far to one facility — the state is already seeing significant benefits. The Federal Communications Commission recently announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking recognizing the need to better enable sophisticated managed access solutions in prisons. This is both timely and welcome, as contraband cellphone use is not just a state and local issue but a national one.

Deploying managed access capabilities to prisons today is not without challenges. There is a considerable amount of regulatory red tape that must be overcome in order to sublease the needed licenses and comply with a host of other requirements. While it is very important to make sure that this solution does not affect citizens' legitimate use of their mobile phones, given the severity of the threat and the evolution of the technology, it makes good sense to streamline this process.

Maryland is on the right track in leading the nation in the deployment of "smart" networks within correctional facilities in densely populated urban areas and should expand the program statewide. Likewise, the FCC is right to consider cutting red tape to better facilitate the implementation of managed access solutions in prisons in the United States to improve public safety — without preventing a single legitimate call.

Ken North is vice president of Hanover-based Tecore Networks, an industry leader in design and deployment of scalable wireless infrastructure. His email is knorth@tecore.com.

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