Local governments in California might lose their ability to black out wireless communications networks.

A new bill has been drafted that would extend the California law that requires a court order to shut down land-based telephone service to mobile devices, giving users uninterrupted access to 911 and telecommunications services.

Introduced Feb. 22 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, SB 1160 follows the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency’s (BART) shutdown of mobile services during August’s public protests regarding the shooting deaths of two men by BART police. The network blackout stirred a firestorm of controversy, attracting the attention of the hacker collective “Anonymous” and the FCC.

In December, BART officially adopted a policy that allows the agency to turn off its wireless network under certain conditions. In the near future, the FCC is expected to take a closer look at the legal and policy issues regarding service interruption, with the aim of providing guidance on the subject.  

Padilla’s press release about the bill mentioned the BART policy in explaining the reasoning behind the legislation.

“Open and available communication networks are the lifeblood of our economy, critical to public safety, and a key element of a free and open society,” Padilla said in a statement. “For decades, California law has required a court order to interrupt or shut down traditional telephone service.

“SB 1160 would extend those protections to the modern telecommunication networks and preempt any local government or agency policy that allows shut down of service without court review.”

The policy BART approved in December does set a threshold for interrupting cell service. No longer can the transit agency simply turn the network off. In order for a “narrowly tailored interruption” of service to be permitted, “extraordinary circumstances” must be present, such as strong evidence of cellphones being used in situations with explosives, to further violent criminal activity, to endanger citizens or to destroy property.

In an email to Government Technology, James Allison, a BART communications officer, said the agency welcomes Padilla’s attention to cellphone use as it relates to public safety.

“Safety is BART's No. 1 priority and we are committed to continuing to recognize the exercise of First Amendment rights,” Allison said.

According to Padilla’s office, the provisions in SB 1160 would be technology-neutral and apply for all services that are used to call 911. The statement also noted that one of the drivers behind the bill is to facilitate California’s participation in a national discussion on service interruption.

At press time, SB 1160 had not been assigned to a legislative committee for a formal hearing.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.