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Last Thursday, the FCC announced that it is seeking comment on issues raised by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shutdown of cellphone service back in August.
BART police shut down area cellphone networks for several hours to stop a political protest, citing public safety as its main concern. Public Knowledge and other organizations petitioned the FCC to prevent future BART-like shutdowns of the cellphone service that so many people rely on. The goal of the petition was not to punish BART but to make sure wireless service shutdowns don’t happen again because there are too many reasons to not mess with the phone system.
Now, the FCC is seeking comment on concerns and issues relating to governments’ intentional interruptions of wireless service, which local governments can draw on to establish best practices that prevent harmful interference with cellphone networks.
The FCC’s comment process is designed to explore the policy implications in these situations and could result in anything from best practices to rulemaking. While PK stresses that public access to wireless service is of the utmost importance (“[a]llowing local governments to interrupt access to wireless communications networks threatens the stability of the network, endangers public safety, and infringes the right of members of the public to access the phone system”), others worry that wireless service can be used to trigger explosive devices or to organize violent flash mobs. The discussion and analysis stemming from the comments will allow the FCC to weigh the cost to individuals losing phone service against the possible threat to public safety posed by maintaining phone service.
Hopefully, governments will realize the public need for wireless service so no one will realize the horror of not being able to make an emergency call. Once the FCC learns more about the public’s need for wireless phone service from the comments, it can provide legal and policy guidance to help state and local governments create best practices to prevent any single jurisdiction from shutting down a cellphone network at its whim.