French mobile phone opponents caught in a jam

French mobile phone opponents caught in a jam

There's nothing more irritating, when I'm at the theater to enjoy a play or a movie, than to have the performance interrupted by a mobile phone ringing.

Except, of course, when it's mine.

When I'm expecting an important call, and I can feel my phone vibrating on my belt, then I'm grateful for the ability of the cellular network to reach me almost anywhere.

It was, in fact, a phone call received in the back row of a movie theater one September night that was partly responsible for my getting the job of writing, among other things, this column.

Naturally, with my livelihood at stake, I view the prospect of Parisian theaters being allowed to install "jammers" to block cell-phone transmissions as a personal attack, something that should only apply to others.

The prospect of such jammers is near at hand: last July, the French government enacted a law opening the way for them to be used in auditoriums and other public places, providing they met technical criteria to be set out by the telecommunication regulator, ART.

It wouldn't do, for instance, if a particularly powerful and poorly tuned jammer interfered with TV transmissions, police radios, or sensitive medical equipment in nearby hospitals.

While I find the idea of jammers objectionable, they find favor with many. While trying to explain the idea to a friend in French, I stumbled in my pronunciation (brouilleur versus broyeur), and inadvertently referred to phone "shredders" rather than "jammers". My friend, who takes a robust, string-'em-up attitude to ring-tone offenders, thinks even shredding is too good for them, and would happily amputate their dialing finger too.

But using technology (be it jamming, shredding or mutilation) to stop phones ringing indiscriminately strikes me as peculiarly un-French; bureaucracy is more their style.

A more typically French solution would be to issue authorized users with permits (in triplicate) to carry phones in restricted areas. Subscribers would have to pass a multiple-choice theory exam showing that they know how and in what circumstances to silence all the major brands of cell phone, and only doctors on call, undercover police officers and friends of the prime minister would be eligible, after a lengthy and frustrating application process. Carrying a concealed cell phone without a permit would be punishable by a heavy fine or imprisonment, but temporary permits would be available to those expecting a lucrative job offer, say, or a baby.

Sheer fantasy, you say -- but this level of bureaucratic obstruction is already a reality for the other side, the would-be jammers.

In early May, ART published the results of the first round of public consultation on the criteria it should set for jammers. It received so many objections that it had to go back to the government for further guidance on how to proceed. The government's advice was to convene a working group to discuss the objections in greater depth.

Over the coming months, the group will invite a succession of ministers, qualified experts and representatives from operators, industry and auditoriums to talk through a long list of issues including how to avoid liability for blocked emergency calls and what, exactly, constitutes an auditorium.

This one could run and -- hold on a moment, would you? I must just answer this call.


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