Cell Commanders: Unlikely duo wins FCC ruling that could produce Cincinnati's next big tech company

Cell Warden shuts down contraband prison phones
Posted at 7:07 AM, Mar 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-30 07:07:43-04

CINCINNATI - The Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules last week to combat contraband cell phones in prisons, creating a big opportunity for local investors.

“This is a worldwide problem,” said Rob Smyjunas, chairman of Cell Command Inc. “It could be a multibillion-dollar company.”

Smyjunas is a Cincinnati real estate developer who partnered 14 months ago with Atlanta-based inventor John Fischer to promote a beacon system that shuts down cell phones within restricted zones. The company has been talking to prison systems and wireless carriers about making its Cell Warden product an industry standard.

The Federal Communications Commission enabled that process March 23 by adopting a “Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making,” which invites public comment on “technological solutions for stopping the use of contraband wireless devices including wireless signal quiet zones and beacon-based technologies.”

The FCC action gives Cell Command 60 days to line up industry support for a voluntary initiative that would adopt the technology as a preferred solution. That’s a tall order because it would require the nation’s four biggest wireless carriers to first agree that Cell Command is the best solution, then lean on cell phone manufacturers to install enabling software in every phone.

But it’s a chance they wouldn’t have without the FCC notice, said Jamie Barnett, a retired Navy rear admiral who led the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau from 2009 to 2012. The FCC’s specific inclusion of “beacon-based” technologies in its order is a big win for Cell Command, said Barnett, now a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the company.

“It’s hard to give percentages” on their chance for success, Barnett added. “But if you had a bake off, they would win. They’ve already done the testing. Nobody is going to stack up to them with regard to the technology, its effectiveness and the cost.”

Here's the big idea

Fischer said prison officials in Brazil, Mexico and Canada are interested in the technology, which has attracted interest from potential buyers. But the FCC order has renewed his belief that a big company can be built from his idea. He thinks it could be worth more than $30 billion within 10 years and hire 1,000 employees. It would be based in Cincinnati, if everything pans out the way he hopes.

Tilting at windmills? Perhaps. But keep in mind that the telecom industry already cooperates on matters of public safety, from terrorism to AMBER alerts involving child abductions. And who could have predicted that a big-box retail developer and a CPA turned tanning bed distributor could negotiate favorable language about cell phone technology into an FCC order?

John Fischer

Fischer grew up in Fort Thomas and graduated with an accounting degree from Northern Kentucky University. But he caught the entrepreneurial bug at Island Tan Industries in Atlanta, where he invented a safety timer for indoor tanning beds and built a company around the idea. He’s been selling off the company in phases since 2010 and relying on the breadwinning capacities of his wife — Penny Fischer is a district sales manager for Georgia flooring maker Mannington Mills Inc. — to finance his next big idea: cell phone interdiction.

Inspired by friends and family injured in text-while-driving wrecks, John Fischer developed technology that disables cell phones in tight spaces, including cars, classrooms and jail cells.

It uses a low-power beacon that can trigger a cell phone’s firmware -- software that can’t be altered because it’s embedded in the hardware of a device – to render any device useless.

The phone becomes "nothing more than a paperweight,” Fischer said while demonstrating the product.

Contact capital

Smyjunas is best known as the developer of Oakley Station and a big-box retail cluster called the Center of Cincinnati. But he’s been a behind-the-scenes contributor to several other projects in Cincinnati, China and elsewhere. Smyjunas is a connector who works his way into deals by finding ways around obstacles like financing gaps, land-acquisition roadblocks and government bureaucracy.

Rob Smyjunas

“Rob is so tenacious. When he believes in something, he goes after it,” said Myron Wolff, a Cincinnati-area investor who introduced the duo because he thought Fischer needed “contact capital,” someone who could use his connections to open doors.

That’s exactly what Smyjunas did when he and Fischer took the first of their 17 trips to Washington last April. Turned away on the seventh floor by the gatekeeper for an industry bigwig, Smyjunas hit the elevator button to stop on floor six. He told Fischer he’d noticed an inter-office stairway, which they promptly used to bypass the receptionist. It was the first of four meetings he talked his way into.

“The guy pulls rabbits out of his hat,” Fischer said. “It would have taken me three months to get those four meetings and he does it all in the same two days.”

Barnett said he’s had other FCC clients who took years to make the same progress that Cell Command accomplished in the last 14 months.

“Obviously, their technology has snagged the interest of the technology people in the FCC,” Barnett said. “They specifically ask about beacon systems. I think that’s huge.”

A problem to be solved

Barnett said the FCC has been frustrated by a lack of practical solutions for contraband cell phones, which inmates are using to coordinate drug deals, plan escapes, threaten enemies and order the execution of witnesses against them. A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office documented the problem.

Fischer’s Twitter feed is a chronicle of the continuing crisis, with its regular links to stories about jail guards who took bribes to supply illegal phones in prison to riots caused by drones dropping contraband phones into exercise yards.

The FCC has been working on solutions since 2009. But the jamming systems initially proposed also interfere with legitimate forms of wireless communication, including police and fire signals. Detection devices don’t work if a contraband phone is turned off. And the industry-favored solution of managed access  — private networks that capture and analyze all voice, text and data transmissions — don’t prevent inmates from taking cell phone video or pictures and smuggling the data out on SIM cards.

Because no technology has proven itself worthy of industry adoption, Barnett said the FCC’s latest rule-making order is a chance for Cell Command to prove its technology is the answer. It’s hard to find a question they haven’t addressed.

For example, the beacon signal is directional and can be confined to a space with an accuracy rate of one meter. That means the Cell Warden signal can shut down phones inside prisons without affecting phones outside. Fischer also modified the technology to give users 10 seconds to place a 911 call before the phone shuts down.

Android phone shutting down on Cell Warden's command

“They’re looking for a 100 percent solution. There’s only one,” Smyjunas said. “There’s nothing even close. It’s the beacon technology.”

Taming the telecoms

CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, has resisted solutions that turn wireless carriers into enforcement agents and interfere with the legitimate use of cell phones.

“To truly combat the use of contraband cell phones in prisons, stakeholders must conduct a comprehensive review of how these devices get into correctional facilities in the first place,” CTIA lobbyist Gerry Keegan told Georgia lawmakers last year. “This is ultimately a contraband problem.”

But the FCC’s recent Notice of Proposed Rule Making demonstrates a clear interest in beacon-based technologies by asking a series of questions about how such a system might work:

Would this solution require legislation to ensure that all wireless carriers and wireless device manufacturers include the software in the wireless devices? In the absence of legislation, how would the Commission ensure wireless carrier and device manufacturer cooperation and pursuant to what authority would the Commission be acting? How would compliance be enforced?

Cell Command has proposed a cooperative model based on the WARN Act, passed by Congress in 2006 to distribute text-message alerts on matters of national security, severe storms and AMBER alerts for child-abduction cases.

The program is not mandatory, but carriers that don’t participate must notify their customers. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile have all signed on. Fischer thinks the same approach will work for technology that solves the contraband cell-phone problem once and for all.

“The industry told us they wouldn’t do anything that required a mandate, but they’d work with if it is a voluntary agreement,” Fischer said.

In the next two months, Cell Command hopes to finalize lab testing so the results can be documented in the FCC record. And it’s talking to several correctional facilities about testing the Cell Warden product in an actual prison. Fischer’s goal is to have the technology “fully adopted” in the U.S. by year end.

“I think it’s going to happen,” he said.