FCC seeks comment on who should be allowed to shut down cellular service and when

Concerned by the San Francisco BART system's decision to suspend cellular service to frustrate coordination among protesters angered by the fatal transit police shooting of an unarmed passenger, the FCC is holding a public inquiry seeking comment on who should be allowed to order cellular service shutoffs, and when. Here's the notice, with instructions for replying. Ars Technica's Megan Geuss writes:

But the FCC's public notice also states that law enforcement personnel have raised concerns that, "wireless service could be used to trigger the detonation of an explosive device or to organize the activities of a violent flash mob," suggesting local government authorities like BART should be allowed to retain some autonomy over service in its stations.

The FCC's decision will most likely set a clear precedent for other local government agencies. So far, two electronic public comments have been posted (the FCC lets you post comments online or send them in by mail), both in favor of more severe restrictions on who can turn off cell phone service and when. "The only time it should be legal to shut down a wireless network is when it is necessary to do so to repair a defect, or when it is necessary to prevent an attack that is compromising the ability of the network to function." said one commenter, "the government and government agencies are not wise enough to judge any other scenario in which one might think about shutting down a network."

Who can shut down cell phone service? FCC seeks public comment


  1. “prevent an attack that is compromising the ability of the network to function”

    the TERRARIST5 are trying to shut down our cellular network, QUICK shut it down to foil their ev1l plan!

  2. ” …law enforcement personnel have raised concerns that, “wireless service could be used to trigger the detonation of an explosive device or to organize the activities of a violent flash mob,..” 

    law enforcement recommended that in such an event they should be able to declare marshall law, suspending all Constitutional Rights, have no constraints  in constraining the public, including strip searches on the street, blindfolding with hoods, chaining them together and marching them to the forced labor camps to await charges and trial.

    law enforcement said, “unless we have unlimited power and full control, we have no control at all. “

  3. “wireless service could be used to trigger the detonation of an explosive device….”

    Yeah, so could a CB radio, personal radio system radio, remote control car transmitter, TV remote control, bluetooth device, garage door opener, well, it’s a pretty long list. Shutting down cell service to prevent something that’s easily accomplishable in a thousand other ways is… Well, it’s as dumb as giving a bunch of mall-cop wannabes little cloth badges and the authority to make random strangers surrender their dignity, nail clippers and liquid cosmetics for the privilege of getting on an airplane. Are we gonna do that now too? Wait, shit. Never mind.

    1. by-golly you’re right!  better shut those down as well…  issue the beat cop personal EMP devices.   total social safety requires some social safety be compromised.

  4. How about “no-one, ever”? If you’re that worried about what “the mob” will do when they mobilise, how about you just try to avoid pissing them off in the first place?

    If your anti-terrorist intel is accurate to the level of “the threat will be coming from a wireless device in x band of the wireless spectrum operating on y transit system”, you’ve probably already got enough info to stop it without trying to jam the whole network.

  5. Cell is a special case, in that it is relayed by existing mechanisms.  As such, it does have unique characteristics as a potential trigger.

    Frankly, I don’t consider the ability to receive cell calls in the middle of a subway car a public right. More of a public nuisance.

    And frankly, the property owner is free to make whatever contract they see fit with the cellular carriers. If that includes reserving the right to turn off the relay under some circumstances, I really have no objection.

    Actually,  in most cases the better answer would be to turn off _incoming_ calls. All the connection-addicted commuters could still play their self-important games of pretending that they have to be on the wire every second of the day, but the major risk would be suppressed.

    Frankly, getting petulant about losing cell service briefly strikes me as being in the same category as getting annoyed that someone in the plane has a crying baby. It’s a miracle that the system works at all. Surely you can live with a brief annoyance. You never noticed the downtime before getting your cell phone, after all…

    Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns and operates the press. You accept compromises when you rent a service. Cope.

    1. I’d rather that people didn’t use their cellphones on public transit at all.

      However, “people may do things we don’t like if, in certain situations, we allow them to use the service that we installed to make us mone- oh, wait, TERRORISTS!” doesn’t cut it as an argument for granting the rights to arbitrary restriction of service, as far as I’m concerned.

      Either cellphone service is a potentially dangerous problem and it needs to be removed, or it’s something that is included in the terms of service when you buy a ticket and the right to remove it on a whim (read: in order to suppress protest) shouldn’t be enshrined in law.

      The transit companies could avoid this problem by removing the network entirely, but it acts as a revenue draw for them (“I can still use my phone when I’m on the train but I can’t if I drive”) so they want the right to arbitrarily decide, without notice, when they can remove one of the services that they offered when their customers bought their tickets.

      Realistically, the chances that stopping cell coverage will successfully stop a terrorist attack/”violent flash mob” are infinitesimally small. On the other hand, the abuse of this power in order to suppress freedom of speech and assembly has already been demonstrated, and further enabling will only lead to further abuses.

      1.  I agree that the terrorist threat is, in general, overblown.

        However, I regard the service as an amenity provided for the passenger’s convenience rather than something included in the price of transportation. I don’t see anything on the fare card promising that it’s good for anything but getting me from point A to point B (or their best effort in that regard, most accurately).

        If you’ve got a contract which says otherwise, great. Otherwise, I think you’re making an unsupported assumption.

        If they were talking about shutting down cellular coverage across the city as a whole, I’d be more sympathetic — though actually, I think the carriers have also promised only best effort.  Shutting it down for public transit just doesn’t strike me as equivalent.

        Though, as I say, if that’s their concern the ideal is to shut down incoming only, which the routers should be able to do. That would let passengers continue to use their phones for, eg, medical emergencies that arise in transit — or indeed for most other purposes; very few of the calls I see on public transit are incoming.

        If people have to wait for you to reach your destination before you get their message… well, realistically, there are very few things you can do over a phone call that couldn’t wait.

        Yes, I carry a cell phone… but I treat it as a tool and convenience, not as a choke collar and leash, or as an addiction.

        1.  (I’m as concern about the evolving security state as anyone, but I believe in picking my battles. This one really isn’t worth the effort. If they were talking about shutting down a city’s worth of cellular coverage, without anything approaching an immediate threat, then I’d be concerned.)

          1.  And the next little infringement won’t be worth it either.  Then the next baby infringement won’t be worth it and oh wow, now you have a complete fascist state, taking all your rights because you were too obtuse to fight when they took the little things.  That’s how it works you know?  Remind me not to ask you to vote as you would most likely vote Republican.

          2. In response to Hollow:  No, I’m liberal to the point of verging on socialist… but there are much more serious concerns already to be focused on, and I honestly don’t think this one in particular is significant.

            If you’re using someone else’s service, then unless the contract says otherwise you’re at the mercy of whether and when and where they provide such service. I’d applaud (and quite possibly switch to)  a cellular company which pushed back against abuse of this and implemented a more rational version (as suggested)…  but I’m finding it really hard to see this instance as the start of a slippery slope.

            Your mileage, obviously, will vary; we agree that we disagree. If you can’t deal with honest disagreements, you’re in the wrong discussion.

    2.  Excellent point.  In the BART case, however, the property owner is a government entity.  The government doesn’t have the same rights to control its property as a private owner.

    3. A bomb in a crowded shopping mall would be a disaster.  A bomb on a crowded freeway would be a disaster.  A bomb at a sporting event would be a disaster.  Maybe we should just block cell signals in all public places.

  6. Does anyone doubt, even for an instant, that they will make any decision that doesn’t involve allowing various governmental units more power while sacrificing the freedoms of individuals?

    I eagerly await the awakening of the American people. The government is correct, from their perspective, to frame this in terms of the potential for disruption of government-imposed creeping fascism.

  7. Manuel, how right you are. It’s sickening as to how the American people are asleep at the switch in terms of their own government slowly seizing their freedoms away.  And why not, the American people would rather concentrate their thoughts on the poison being dished out by “Holywood.”  Let’s not forget to watch American Idol as your freedoms are being slowly taken away from you all the while you don’t notice or even care.  The American people deserve the government they get.

  8. … And if you can’t coordinate a protest without cell phones at the site, you really aren’t serious about the protest.

  9. Never.

    Before long wireless service will be the only service.

    At this time we have no way of predicting the type of devices that will one day depend on wireless networks to operate safely.

    This question is just as silly as asking when should they kill the electrical grid.

  10. How can the powerful maintain their position of power without exerting power, such as contolling communication by the people, explaining that the contol is to protect and serve the public against the theat of terrorest, radicals, communists or what ever is the current fear?

  11. This hasn’t been up for long, but I’m surprised there are only two public comments.  You can see them here: http://goo.gl/GY6bL

    You need to know the docket number — 12-52– before you can file your own comment here:

    The thing that troubles me is the assumption that everyone with a cellphone is a potential terrorist or criminal.  What about calls for medical assistance?  What about the “hey, there’s a bunch of crazies running amok here, disrupting our peaceful protest” calls?  The authorities have their own communication networks, so cutting off the public ones seems to be labeling everyone else as an enemy. The authorities are there to protect us from the small percentage of people who are really dangerous.  By assuming that we’re all terrorists, the authorities make their job difficult, if not impossible.

    I don’t believe there is a “right” to wireless phones. BART installed repeaters as a public service, and they aren’t required to continue that service. However, if they do provided it, I don’t think BART — especially as a government organization — retains the right to decide when and what communications would like to facilitate. I believe that the US Frist Amendment rights to assembly include using contemporary technology to create that assembly.  Intentionally disrupting those means to control political dialog is not in keeping with the ideals of the United States.

    1. I just posted my comment, but it hasn’t appeared on the FCC’s site yet.  I expect that there is an avalanche of comments in their approval cure.

      Although their site is difficult to navigate, I appreciate the FCC’s appeal to direct democracy in this case.  I hope the volume of comment they receive encourages them to continue in this fashion.

    2. It seems to be the trend these days that everyone is treated like a criminal, and as a result, the only people with rights are criminals.  That’s true, as you say in this case, in the use of DRM, in the security theater at the airport…in almost every encounter.

      Too many otherwise intelligent friends of mine keep telling me I shouldn’t mind because I have nothing to hide, but I DO mind.

  12. I’ve called 911 four times in my life, every single time was from a cell phone.  I’d hate to think what would have happened if I’d had to spend 15 minutes to find a working payphone before calling.

    The one and only acceptable answer is NEVER.

    1. The one time that I called 911 from a cell phone, here in Palm Springs, I got the Highway Patrol in San Diego. Super useful for reporting a fire!

      1. 911 calls on cell phones in CA used to always go to CHP.  Fortunately that seems to have changed at some point in the past few years; you now generally get the local 911 dispatch.

    1.  A _clever_ terrorist is pretty much unstoppable.

      Luckily, that has mostly been an oxymoron. As with most crime, anyone clever enough to do it well is also clever enough to accomplish more in other ways.

  13. My guess is that if they don’t retain the right to control the system they will just shut it off. Other municipalities will not install the infrastructure in their subways either. We do have a right to free speech, but the government doesn’t have to give you the pen and paper.

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