Several years ago,
when I was giving a presentation to a large group in Washington,
D.C., I was making a key point when a cell phone belonging to an
attendee in the second row starting ringing. It was one of those
irritating ring tones that kept getting louder, causing the owner
to get increasingly flustered and embarrassed as she struggled to
find the phone in her purse.
I politely said, “If it’s for me,
please tell them I’m busy and take a message.” It was easy to make
a joke back then, when cell phones were still somewhat novel and
interruptions weren’t commonplace. Today, however, given an
ever-increasing array of communications devices, it’s not just the
audible call that becomes the interruption but also the text
e-mail. In the past, if people were looking down intently, they
likely were taking notes; today, they more likely are composing a
message, responding to one or even surfing the web.
Around the World
What can be done to stop the
distractions, short of having attendees check all cellular devices
at the door? In the United States and most of Europe, it is illegal
to intentionally block or interfere with any RF (radio frequency)
transmissions. But consider the uses where it is legal:
* In Mexico, churches use jamming
devices to prevent signals inside their walls.
* In France, cell phone jammers are
used as a common practice in offices, theaters and public
* In Latin America, signal jammers are
used to prevent people inside a bank from alerting muggers outside
to customers who have withdrawn large sums.
Use them at your own peril in the
United States, however: The Federal Communications Commission can
fine you up to $11,000 and send you to prison for up to a year.
However, to date no one has been prosecuted under this law, and
several efforts are underway to change the law to allow selective
In the meantime, the most direct method
is the polite request: At the beginning of each session, remind
participants to shut off their phones and PDAs.
Beyond that tactic, which is flawed by
human nature, following are several possible solutions for curbing
signals. Check to see if potential meeting sites use the
* Magnetic wood
paneling. A scientist has created a building material
saturated with magnetic particles of nickel-zinc ferrite that
blocks 97 percent of cellular signals.
* Faraday Cage. Named
for physicist Michael Faraday, this involves creating a room or
area that is a self-contained electrical barrier that shields
incoming or outgoing signals.
* Lead-painted walls.
Of course, there are health concerns associated with chipped and
peeling lead paint, but just for the record, such paint limits the
signals going in and out of a room or area. Older buildings such as
hospitals or historic landmarks might still use it (and must pass
* Q-Zone. This
product, made by BlueLinx Inc. (www.bluelinx.com) uses Bluetooth technology to
change the ringing characteristics of phones to create a quiet
zone. Depending on the phone, the Q-Zone might set the ringer to
vibrate, lower the ring volume or direct inbound calls to voice
mail. Once a phone leaves the quiet zone, it returns to normal
Q-Zone is available on a subscription
basis and can be deployed legally in a wide range of environments,
with costs determined by the size of the quiet zone desired. It
will, however, work only on Bluetooth-equipped phones.
Until the laws change or more
facilities deploy tools like the Faraday Cage or Q-Zone, our main
defense against these annoying interruptions remains a courteous
and cooperative audience.
Bob Walters,based in Fort Worth, Texas, is founder of Phoenix Solutions
and developer of MeetingTrak Software.