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Preventing terrorists from using cell phones

Howard Melamed, manager of an international cellular communications company talks about how terrorists use cellular phones and what can be done to prevent such attacks.
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The London terror attacks have once again left authorities scrambling to figure out how to keep cities safe.  One thing that's causing large concerns these days are cell phones because of their ability to be used in bomb making.

Howard Melamed, managing director of Cellantenna, a cellular communications company with offices in both the United States and England, joined MSNBC's Amy Robach on Tuesday to discuss what cities can do to prevent cellular technology from being used in terrorism.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

Amy Robach:  Now, it's still unclear whether or not cell phones were used in any way, shape, or form or intended to be used in (the attacks on London), but we know that was the case in Madrid.  Tell us how using a cell phone works when setting off a bomb.  Is it the alarm function?

Howard Melamed, Managing Director, Cellantenna:  Well, there's two ways of setting off a bomb with a cell phone.  One of them is the alarm function and secondly of course is to make a call to the cell phone itself.

Robach: Now, a few days after the attacks, officials in New York City shut off service in certain areas.  In fact, intermittedly, we're hearing about some of the different tunnels in New York ending cell phone services.  Do you think shutting off services like this in shuttles and subways in a step in the right direction?

Melamed:   I think it should be permanently off.  I don't think we should have cell phone service in any of the tunnels or in front of any government buildings or specifically at airports.

This is a very important point.  We need to make sure there's no chance for any bombs to go off in these areas.

Robach:  So obviously, the argument is that if there was something happening in one of these subways or tunnels, no one could contact authorities.  Is there a remedy?

Melamed:  Well, the remedy is very simple.  In most of the tunnels, they have the regular landline.  That's the good old fashion phone; they have roughly every 100-200 feet inside the tunnels.  Believe it or not, that's perhaps the best way to make the phone call.

Chances are, if there is an event happening in a tunnel for instance and everyone tries to use their cell phone because the cell tower itself isn't capable of handling all those calls, chances are you're not going to be able to make the calls, it's just going to shut down. 

Robach:  Right now, Congress is contemplating allowing passengers on airliners to make cell phone calls while in mid flight.  Is this dangerous?

Melamed:  It's very dangerous.  I mean I can't believe they're even thinking about it.  Until we can make sure cell phones are safe, until we can make sure cell phones can't be used for terrorist means, then we shouldn't allow it.  Now, I tell you there's other problems associated with the cell phone as well.  Including the battery itself is unsafe.

Lithium iron cobalt is a very unstable material and these batteries have been known to blow up without any terrorists doing it just naturally.  So with those things and those dangers in mind, there's just no way that we should even contemplate using a cell phone on an airplane. 

Robach:  What will it take for companies, can they make cell phones safe and how long would it take to do so?

Melamed:  Well, it's a long period of time.  In the United States, there are close to 300 million cell phones, world wide, maybe a billon.  Most people keep their cell phones for about 18 months and when they replace it, they hang onto it so we have to do a few things.

One, we have to change the batteries in the cell phones to something a lot more stable such as lithium iron phosphate instead of lithium iron cobalt. Secondly, we have to make them tamper proof so that you can't open them up with simply a screwdriver or just by removing the plastic. And third, we have to make sure there's no alarm clock function on these phones. 

If you ask me, I'd rather have no alarm clock function and be completely safe and sound then using my cell phone. 

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