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
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.