Toronto The house lights go down as you settle into your seat, ready to hear the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform Gustav Mahler. Maestro Jukka-Pekka Saraste raises his baton and you can hear a pin drop ... until a cell phone starts beeping a digital Bach fugue.
"That one ring can destroy the experience," said Charles Cutts, chief executive of the Roy Thomson Hall, home to Canada's premier orchestra. "The first words outside won't be 'Wasn't the soprano fantastic?' but 'Can you believe someone actually left their cell phone on?'"
Soon, though, Canadians might not even have to remember to switch their cells off. Canada is debating relaxing its laws on jamming devices to allow theaters, restaurants, libraries, hospitals, places of worship and private companies to silence cell phones on their premises.
Relaxing the laws would push Canada onto the front line in the global debate on whether and how to restrict the use of what is becoming the most ubiquitous gadget of the new millennium.
Questions include whether Joe Public has the right to dine, read, pray or attend an opera in an environment free from cell phone noise pollution. Or, does jamming constitute a restriction of personal freedom?
Does jamming invalidate billion-dollar concessions granted by government to cell phone carriers? Could it even put people's lives at risk if, say, doctors, firefighters or ambulance drivers can't be reached because they are watching a movie?
Australia and Japan already allow limited jamming in establishments such as theaters through government-controlled licenses. The jury is still out in Hong Kong, Malaysia, France and Italy. The United States and Britain are firmly against commercial jamming devices.
Filling the leaks
What Cutts would need to guarantee silence in the performance hall is a box of technological tricks such as the French-made SIR-Jam, Britain's pocket-sized Wave-Shield or the C-Guard, a jammer in a suitcase made by Netline Communications Technologies in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Using technology developed after an Israeli soldier inadvertently leaked military intelligence by accidentally pressing "call" on his cell phone during a top-secret meeting, C-Guard devices can jam signals in a radius of up to 100 yards, says Arik Goldshtein, Netline's senior vice president.
"All we do is construct a 'radio firewall' in a designated area," he said. "That area can be tightly controlled and adjusted to suit clients' needs."
One potential client is prison authorities in Brazil's Sao Paulo state, where organized crime groups coordinated a massive statewide prison rebellion in February using cell phones.
"We've tried everything else body searches, metal detectors but prison guards still get bribed and women visitors even hide cell phones in their body cavities," said Inspector Mario Jordao. "We've tested the equipment and it's fantastic we're convinced it's the most efficient way of stopping this."
With C-Guard prices ranging from $900 to $6,500, you might expect demand to be limited. Not according to Goldshtein, who says Netline is selling thousands of devices a year via the Internet to restaurants, concert halls and private businesses to shield boardrooms during strategic meetings.
"We are exporting all over the world, and I mean all over," he said. "There are still a lot of gray areas in terms of regulations, but once this is legal, the worldwide market will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, no question."
Open to debate
There are plenty of questions when it comes to legislation, though.
In Canada, as in most places, only law enforcement and emergency services can legally interfere with radio signals. (Jamming can be a big help in foiling terrorist activities or snaring criminals.)
This month, Canada launched a 90-day public debate period, inviting citizens to air their views on jamming. Judging from the comments on Industry Canada's Internet bulletin board, the population is divided.
Kathryn Jones called legalizing jammers "an excellent idea."
"We wouldn't need them if people were courteous and turned their cell phones off, but unfortunately there are a lot of inconsiderate people around these days who don't do that," she wrote.
But others disagree.
"Don't do it unless you plan to refund me for the amount of time I can't use my mobile," said Michael Stevens.
George Serhan, who operates a tow truck and is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wrote that being reachable on his cell was often a "case of life and death."
"Just think if it was your family and they were trapped in a motor vehicle accident and the response of my unit was greatly hampered," Serhan wrote.
Awaiting an organ transplant, Vern Yoshida wrote "my cell phone is my lifeline to the medical system."
All the buzz
Creative alternatives to jamming do exist.
With medics and other emergency services in mind, North Carolina-based BlueLinx has adapted Bluetooth wireless technology to automatically switch cell phones rings to a silent vibrate mode when they come within 10 meters (yards) of a BlueLinx node.
A BlueLinx node currently costs about $500. BlueLinx Chief Executive Jeff Griffin reckons about 10 would be needed to cover a major concert hall.
But BlueLinx nodes only work on Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, and that's not very many today.
Griffin said "it makes sense to jam hospitals, where wireless signals can interfere with life support machines and stuff, but not in restaurants and theaters."
Marc Choma of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Assn., which opposes jamming, says some 9 million Canadians or one in four has a cell phone and that last year, 3 million emergency 911 calls were made from mobiles.
"To take that out of people's hands is unacceptable," Choma said.
"Wireless technology is still relatively new," he added. "People have to learn how to use this technology and the questions of etiquette and manners that go with it. We feel that is better left to society."
The CWTA has published "cell savvy" etiquette rules that include such basics as "when others scoff, turn it off," or "don't be a clown, turn it down," or even "when in doubt, please go out."
Peer pressure doesn't always work, though.
Just ask Iwao Masubuchi, spokesman for The National Theatre of Japan, which shows traditional Kabuki and Bunraku plays.
The theater installed a jamming system in January for 1 million yen ($8,000).
"It's working out great," Masubuchi said. "There are far fewer complaints, so we're happy about that. We used to tell the audience to turn their cell phones off, but people would forget, and the things would start jingling at the best moments."