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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Right to silence?
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Mobile jamming image
The infuriating ring of someone else's mobile blights many a night out at the cinema or theatre. France has decided to jam phone signals to allow audiences to enjoy shows in silence - could the UK follow suit?

It was during the launch of his first show at London's Old Vic that Kevin Spacey put the knife into thoughtless mobile phone owners.

"It's a phone free zone. We don't want them ringing and we certainly don't want them ringing and people ignoring them pretending that it's not theirs," he warned potential audiences.

The trill or bleep of a mobile has become an all-too familiar recreational hazard for theatre and cinema-goers. In France they've had enough and the government is allowing venues to use mobile phone jammers to block incoming signals.

Blocking technology is cheap and easily available, but such devices are illegal in the UK. Could that be about to change?

Supporters suggest the benefits could also extend to hospitals, schools and other buildings where daily business is regularly upset by chiming mobiles.

'A crusade'

One convert is Ronnie McGuire, a Scottish businessman who is itching for a change in the law so he can offload his mobile blockers for 105 a go.

A pocket-sized jammer
A pocket-sized jammer
"I'm not only doing this from a business point of view, it's a bit of a crusade as well," says Mr McGuire, who has christened his company Peace at Last. "Many people would like some kind of control where they don't have these phones in their face."

However, Mr McGuire's business is in limbo after he sold a device to a journalist, who promptly exposed his illegal antics.

While he says he hoping to appeal the decision, Ofcom, the communications regulator, says there is no room for doubt. Jammers are illegal under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, which outlaws "any device that interferes with the radio signals of another device".

And in a nutshell, that's exactly what jammers do. By broadcasting on the same frequency as a mobile network they block signals, leaving phone users with a "no signal" message.

Hotel phones

Elsewhere though, there's no shortage of interest in jammers.

Kevin Spacey
Stop this mobile madness, says Spacey
In Israel it is reported that hotel chains have found them a great way of forcing guests to use the expensive in-room phones. Four churches in Monterrey, Mexico, are said to have used jammers to prevent the solemnity of their services being broken by polyphonic renditions of the latest chart hits.

Police and security services have also seized on the technology, using jammers to prevent suspects communicating. And with mobile phones being used to trigger bombs, as happened in the Madrid attacks in March, there is a clear argument that they could help prevent terrorist attacks.

David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic theatre, would not hesitate to use blockers if they were legal and affordable. People think it's just schoolchildren who are culpable, he says, but staff themselves can be the problem.

"It's happened to me twice, once when I was sitting in the front row. I just forgot and wanted to die," says Mr Lan.

Audiences at the Young Vic are politely warned to turn off their phones as they enter, but about once a week a performance is interrupted, and with the theatre currently being redeveloped it is keen to incorporate same kind of catch-all solution.

'Quiet zones'

Instead of electric jammers, the solution could be "wallpaper" containing complex metal patterns which block some signals but let others through. Its use is a legal "grey area" in the UK.

My feeling is if people don't know how to behave they shouldn't come
Kevin Spacey

This could soon be on the market, for use in airports, hospitals, prisons, military establishments or indeed any building which needs a "quiet zone", says technology firm Qinetiq.

Just think of how schools could benefit from putting a stop to text-crazy pupils, suggests a Qinetiq spokesman.

The wallpaper would not stop emergency services from using their radios, says Alan Newbold of communications firm Arup, which is developing a similar product.

The hi-tech wallpaper can be incorporated in the structure of a building, or simply covered over. Less sophisticated versions which simply block all phone signals, are already being used in research laboratories and hospitals, the firms say.

Eviction threat

As it stands though, most venues have to resort to other tactics to beat the mobile blight. Cinema ads to highlight the mobile menace have become an art form in their own right.

Failing that, some venues threaten persistent offenders with eviction while in New York, transgressors face a $50 (28) fine.

As Kevin Spacey says: "My feeling is if people don't know how to behave they shouldn't come."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The sound of someone's mobile going off when I'm watching a film or, more frequently, during a lecture at Uni is intensely irritating, although, in the case of the latter the person's humiliation at the hands of the lecturer is extremely entertaining!
Martin, Oxford

Having sat next to a compulsive caller on a crowded train using two mobiles, I would have gladly paid for a pocket jammer. The sooner it is legal the better for all.
Peter Nixon, Middlesbrough, UK

Active jammers are a health hazard. Not only are they continuously transmitting (which phones are not), but ANY easing of the ban will cause proliferation of "personal jammers".
Tim J, Essex, UK

I fear that essential and emergency use of mobiles could suffer - my wife and I always leave a mobile on in our pocket - on silent - so the babysitter can contact us if required.
Keith McBain, Glasgow, Scotland

I always keep my phone on in the Cinema/Theatre... so, how do I get away with it? Simple - I keep it on silent. Problem solved.
Jamie, London

I can see the film pitch now - a darkened road, a lonely motorist beside a broken car, a sinister van approaches. The mobile phone says "jammed"...
Duane, London

How can the wallpaper that passively blocks mobile signals be a legal 'grey-area'? My microwave oven casing effectively blocks the signals from a mobile telephone. Does this mean I, and many others out there, are also in a legal 'grey-area' by being in possession of such devices?
Jon Gray, Chesterfield, UK

As I understand it, it's not illegal to have a building which acts as a "Faraday cage" which blocks signals naturally. Underground stations are natural Faraday cages. It should be fairly simple to put wire netting on the inside of theatres, and thereby get around the law, and give music-lovers a well-deserved break from irritating noises.
Ralph, London

If businesses such as hotels wish the public to use their phones then they should review their pricing policy so that they are more cost effective.
Darren Smith, Tolworth, Surrey

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