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FCC Seeks Input on Gov't Wireless Shutdowns

Fri, 03/02/2012 - 10:35am
Maisie Ramsay

The FCC wants the public to weigh in on whether the government should be allowed to block wireless services for safety reasons. 

The issue came to the fore after San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) interrupted cell service at some of its stations last August to deter planned protests over the shooting death of a homeless man by a BART officer.

 The FCC said Thursday that discussion of the issue by authorities has been "insufficient." It is soliciting comment on a range of issues including what circumstances, if any, justify turning off licensed wireless services.  

"Any intentional interruption of wireless service, no matter how brief or localized, raises significant concerns and implicates substantial legal and policy questions," the FCC said in a public notice issued today which specifically cited the BART shutdown.  The first round of submissions is due April 30, with the deadline for replies to those comments due May 30. 

BART argued it needed to turn off wireless service to protect its riders, but the move was met by sharp criticism and prompted the FCC to investigate whether the transportation agency had violated the Communications Act. 

The act prohibits the manufacture, sale and use of cell phone jammers. Violations can result in fines of up to $11,000 for each violation, or a year-long prison term. 

But laws against phone jamming have not stopped authorities in the United States and abroad from blocking wireless services, claiming the technology was used to put citizens at risk.  

For instance, violent protesters in the U.K used smartphones to organize violent mobs last year, and terrorists behind a 2003 bombing in Saudi Arabia used rigged cell phones to detonate bombs.  

As for BART, public outcry forced it to change its policy. In December, it said it would only interrupt cell phone service under “extraordinary circumstances.”  

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