FCC Studying Government Wireless Service Interruptions
March 3, 2012

FCC Studying Government Wireless Service Interruptions

In response to an August 2011 shutdown of wireless service by public transportation officials in San Francisco, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced plans to review whether or not they need to establish rules to govern when law enforcement and other public service agencies can interrupt cellphone and Internet service in the name of public safety.

The inquiry comes as a result of actions by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) agency, who on August 12 of last year limited phone service in the midst of planned protests in train stations, according to various media reports.

Edward Wyatt of the New York Times said that BART officials shut off cellphone service for three hours in some locations. Representatives from the transit group told Bloomberg's Todd Shields said that the reason for doing so was because of organized threats to "use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART police" following a fatal shooting by officers.

In an FCC statement released Thursday, the organization said that BART drew "sharp criticism" for the move, Shields reported. The group's statement added that "any intentional interruption of wireless service, no matter how brief or localized, raises significant concerns and implicates substantial legal and policy questions."

Josh Smith of the National Journal's Tech Daily Dose column said that the FCC is seeking public comment on the issue as part of what he refers to as a "fact-finding effort." Specifically, they are soliciting input on such issues as "the potential authority of government agencies to shut down wireless service" as well as "the reasons and risks behind intentional outages," Smith added.

The FCC will accept public comment on the matter over the next two months, Wyatt said.

According to the New York Times, the matter was first brought to the attention of the FCC by various public interest groups, who shortly after the incident asked the agency to rule that BART's actions were in violation of federal law, largely because the move endangered public safety.

“The same wireless network that police see as a tool for rioters to coordinate is the same wireless network used by peaceful protesters to exercise our fundamental freedoms,” Harold Feld, legal director for Public Knowledge, which was one of the organizations that contacted the FCC, said in a statement, according to both Wyatt and Smith.

"In any event, the network will be necessary for people in the area to call for help or to let family members know they are not harmed," he added.

In the FCC's statement, Chairman Julius Genachowski said that "our democracy, our society, and our safety all require communications networks that are available and open."


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