Mobile phone boors' wake up call

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 1999, 12:00am

You are in a hushed theatre. On the stage, a dancer goes through the delicate final steps of a ballet. The audience is breathless as the dance drama reaches its tragic peak. 'Yes', the person next to you cries loudly, answering a mobile phone.

In the Members' Stand of the Hong Kong Jockey Club at Sha Tin, a man hunches in a corner. He mumbles into a mobile phone held under his jacket. He's placing bets worth tens of thousands, depriving the club of revenue, government of taxes and charities of income.

In the solemn quiet of an academic library, a student concentrating on a doctorate in chemical engineering loses track of thought as another young scholar breaks off to chat on the phone.

It's all part of Hong Kong daily life. The mobile phone is everywhere, no more a frill but a vital adjunct of social and business life. The shrill peal respects no sanctity; at a funeral recently, there were no fewer than three calls during the minister's eulogy and, to my astonishment, people answered them. One person, at least, had the decency to scurry out of the church, phone clutched to ear, as the dear departed was laid to rest.

Is there no respite? Well, yes, there is, but it is being denied to people by the zealous mandarins of the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA.) In what seems an astonishing decision, these policemen of the airways have ruled - using no other guidelines but their own prejudices - that constant intrusive interruptions in restaurants, theatres, hospitals, schools, funeral parlours, churches, clubs and other institutions is perfectly acceptable.

Simple technology exists which can stop mobile phones being used in premises. It is called a mobile phone disabler and is used in many countries. But OFTA has banned it in Hong Kong.

It seems odd that we have a government agency of extensive powers forbidding people to take steps to stop being pestered in their own premises.

Take the case of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Library, which applied for a user licence to install a disabler to prevent students using mobile phones. The librarian, Barry Burton, went through the correct and tedious procedures of making all the right inquiries and applications, explaining at some length to OFTA the special circumstances that prompted his request.

The spacious Pao Yue-kong Library, one of the largest academic facilities of its type in Asia, is visited each day by more than 6,000 students. Despite warning signs and constant reminders by staff, students' use of mobile phones creates a huge nuisance. It is a constant source of dispute and arguments between students and staff; more than 1,000 warnings a month are issued.

The trouble caused by mobile phones disrupts studies, creates conflicts and confrontations and wastes an enormous amount of manpower.

The six-storey building of 14,000 square metres has emergency phones on each floor and is patrolled by security guards; one tenuous argument by OFTA against disablers is that they prevent people from calling 999 in an emergency.

Despite the well-reasoned arguments put up by the Poly U Librarian, OFTA was swift to refuse the application. It ruled the use of a disabler would be 'a disproportionate solution'. It said disablers not only stopped phones ringing but also barred calls to mobile phones which had vibrator-type alarms.

OFTA's response split tiny philosophical hairs; it said the disablers could bar some phone companies and not others which would not be fair.

But most important, OFTA says, is that disablers are objectionable in principle. And don't think they are joking; if convicted in a higher court of using this equipment you can be fined $100,000 and locked up for five years.

What's going on? How come people in their own private premises cannot prevent unwanted electronic intrusions? In Korea, for example, their installation and use is compulsory in venues like theatres. So why does OFTA ban them? The Director General of OFTA, Wong Sik-kei, says blandly that disablers are 'not desirable at present'.

He explains that current technology transmits signals to jam nearby mobile phones. Such a continuous jamming signal could leak out of a building and affect nearby premises. That's fair enough.

Mr Wong goes on to say that jamming could prevent people from making emergency calls in cases where 'a few seconds could have saved a life'. That's pure imagination.

But most objectionable, to me, is Mr Wong's contention that use of a disabler is somehow an infringement of individual rights.

'We do not believe an individual's right to access or receive information should be unnecessarily restrained so long as other peoples' rights are respected,' he says. What about the right not to be unduly disturbed by ringing tones or loud conversations? Many mobile phones have vibrator alerts instead of ringing calls and can display messages silently. Disablers would also jam such services, he says. So what? Mr Wong suggests that house rules should be used to restrict mobile phones in places where they are not welcome.

Well, I don't know on what planet Mr Wong resides, but it seems to be a very long distance call away from Mother Earth. If he thinks that warnings and rules carry any weight with the average Hong Kong telephone addict, then he has not been to a movie recently, nor a club, nor a hospital, nor a five-star hotel restaurant with discreet signs asking people to turn off their pocket phones.

Perhaps he is right about the technology to disable mobile phone calls not being perfect. Obviously, a club, for example, should not install a disabler if it is going to affect a building next door.

But when the electronic whiz-kids come up with an effective and workable machine that can cut off mobile calls into and out of specific limited areas, then OFTA and the Government should change the laws that prevent people from protecting their own privacy.

Mobile phone users have their rights. So do institutions and businesses which do not want ceaseless intrusions.