Some employers, particularly those in manufacturing, health care, and other situations where mobile phone use could interfere with employee safety, have come up with novel approaches to curbing employees’ uses of mobile phones. While a policy restricting personal phone calls and texting may be acceptable, installation of a signal jammer to prevent employees from accessing the network is unlawful and can subject the employer to significant penalties. R&N (“RNM”) Manufacturing, Ltd. In Houston, Texas learned this lesson the hard way when the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) showed up at its manufacturing facility.
As background, RNM purchased a signal jammer online in February 2013, to prevent employees from placing wireless calls from the factory, by blocking cell phone communications. With very limited exceptions, the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules bar the importation, use, marketing, manufacturing, and sale of jammers. Jammers may be available for sale all over the Internet, but they are prohibited. The reason behind this prohibition is that jammers can interfere with emergency and other communications services, including GPS. Signal jammers typically transmit high-powered radio signals that interfere with authorized communications. The interference can, among other dangers, place first responders and the public at risk if critical communications cannot be transmitted.
AT&T determined that a signal originating from RNM’s Houston facilities was interfering with AT&T’s signal, and reported the interference to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. FCC field agents in Houston conducted an investigation and found strong signals coming from RNM’s Houston facility. The agents subsequently visited the facility to determine the source of the interference and to notify a corporate officer. RNM’s CFO confirmed the jammer and promised to discontinue the jammer’s use. A formal enforcement action followed.
After analyzing the facts and the agency’s forfeiture guidelines, the FCC imposed a forfeiture on RNM of $29,250 for the 10-day operation (and the voluntary relinquishment of the illegal device). While this is not a huge penalty, the FCC noted that it could have imposed a forfeiture in excess of $337,000 had it imposed a straightforward application of the statutory maximum.
There are a few important points to note here. First, employers seeking to curb employee mobile use should rely on policies and enforcement, rather than “self-help” through installation of their own devices. While jammers are available for purchase online – they are illegal irrespective of what a website might advertise.
Second, while companies might not expect an FCC official to show up at their door for an investigation, the agency (like many other agencies) has field agents and they do conduct on-site investigations – including without notice. All organizations should have a designated officer or senior employee who is trained to interface with investigators. Outside counsel can also be key here to interact with the agents and help guide the company through the audit.
Third, monetary penalties can be steep. A mere 10 days’ use of the signal jammer cost RNM a nearly $30,000 penalty plus likely legal fees and employee time. Had RNM been using the cell jammer over a longer time period, it could have faced a six-figure fine.
Fourth, even though RNM was not an “FCC-regulated” entity such as a broadcast station, telecom company, etc., it understood the need to be responsive and to take the matter seriously. Just because a company is not regularly under an agency’s jurisdiction doesn’t mean it is not subject to the agency’s enforcement powers. Federal agencies such as the FCC and FTC enforce laws with wide-ranging implications and can subject companies in various industries to their jurisdiction.
The FCC’s Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture is available here.