kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 July, 2005, 12:00am

It was a solemn moment. Mourners were passing the open coffin to farewell a patriarch. A mobile phone shrilled. Incredibly, the young woman who pulled the implement from her bag started talking into it as she bowed in respect to the corpse.

You sit in a cinema. The drama moves towards a climax. The piercing strains of Samba Rumble, the most irritating of mobile phone call signs, ruins the movie.

In these environments, and in many others, the strident calls of mobile phones can be easily eliminated. Modern technology makes it both effective and inexpensive to blanket areas with jamming devices sold over the internet for as little as $2,500. But in Hong Kong it remains a crime for theatre owners, hospital operators, restaurateurs, librarians or others to protect their premises by installing jammers.

Yes, a crime.

If you use this technology inside your own property the thought police of the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta) will gladly prosecute; you could do two years in the slammer for using a jammer. You can also be fined up to $50,000.

Under the Telecommunications Ordinance, anyone using radio communications equipment must have a licence. Ofta has not licensed anyone to use mobile phone-blocking devices because 'it could create radio interference to the existing mobile services'.

Well, bless me; that's the entire point.

Jamming is illegal in most western countries, but that doesn't stop people. Internet marketers people are coy; European manufacturers will not sell their goods to residents of the European Union but don't mind shipping them across the Atlantic. Likewise, US distributors won't sell jammers in their own backyard, but are eager to despatch them elsewhere.

The technology is simple. Flick a switch on most cheap jammers and the makers promise that all mobiles in a 30-metre area will go dead. The jammers prevent mobiles from receiving or sending calls. In 2002, Ofta planned to hold public consultations on the use of jammers.

But that consultation never took place.

Why not?

Well, don't try to find out from Ofta because the authority will not tell you. It seems that when the consultation was going to start, Ofta decided it was not needed. So Ofta consulted Ofta about the situation which Ofta controls and Ofta decided it didn't need to listen to what the public had to say.

That's a nice system, if you can get away with it, which they have.

The Ofta spokesman says they decided jamming was not needed because people were using more text messages and not talking on their phones so much.

So they never held the promised consultations; adding further to this insult to the public, they didn't even bother to announce that the discussions on jamming would not be held. Such is our open and transparent governance.

Maybe the reason Ofta didn't want to hear what people thought was because it was obvious public opinion was contrary to what the authority wanted.

A survey in 1999 by Asian Commercial Research showed a big majority of people wanted mobile phones banned in cinemas, concert halls and libraries and 59 per cent approved of jamming in these places.

I'm not the only person in Hong Kong who would like to see jammers approved for use in specific locations.

A senior library manager with Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Tinny Sun Ho Yim-ming, says they regularly receive complaints about mobile phone users disturbing readers.

'We thought two years ago about installing jamming devices in libraries but we couldn't do it,' Ms Ho said. 'Even in academic libraries they do not use such devices. We have to rely on people's moral obligation to be courteous.'

Good luck to library users.

United Artists cinemas operations manager Michael Cheung Yiu-Fai also gets complaints, especially from Pacific Place. 'If it was legal and legitimate to install jamming devices we would definitely do it,' he says.

It seems to me the Ofta position turns logic on its head.

Surely the occupant or owner has the right to prevent unwanted intrusions on his premises. If I owned a theatre, for instance, and I wished my customers to enjoy a play or ballet without interference, why shouldn't I be able to control the environment?

Why should some government agency be able to insist that guests or patrons within my establishment be able to act in a way that upsets others?

It makes no sense to me. But then, I don't work for Ofta.