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FCC Asked to Disallow Wireless Shutdowns on Public Transit

Advocacy groups assert that Aug. 11 shutdown of cell service on San Francisco transit endangered the public and infringed upon citizen rights.

An emergency filing sent Monday, Aug. 29, to the FCC is asking the commission to swiftly rule that local governments don’t have the authority to shut off wireless communications systems — a direct rebuke of an incident earlier this month on San Francisco’s public transit.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology in Government, and several other organizations asserted in the emergency petition that Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (BART) purposeful shutdown on Aug. 11 of wireless service used by passengers engendered public safety and infringed on citizen rights.

Both the FCC and BART have already said they would investigate the circumstances and legality of the shutdown. The advocacy groups commended the FCC for initiating an inquiry.

“However, the recent statements by BART directors, as well as the possibility that other local jurisdictions may act to interfere with CMRS service [commercial mobile radio service] in similar situations, demonstrate that the Commission must not wait on the outcome of its investigation into this specific incident to clarify the law generally,” according to the petition.

BART turned off cell service at four underground stations on Aug. 11. BART officials said the temporary shutdown was due to information they had that mobile devices would be used to organize a rush-hour protest over the shooting deaths of two men by BART police.

Turning cell service off created a firestorm of freedom-of-speech claims, including from the activist group “Anonymous.” The group fired back at BART on Aug. 14, hacking the website and leaking the personal and login information of that website’s users. remains temporarily shut down by BART.

The hacking incident was followed by an additional protest, organized by Anonymous on Aug. 15, of about 100 people that caused the shutdown of various BART stations. Anonymous is also alleged to have leaked the personal information of BART police officers on Aug. 17. On Aug. 22, an additional protest was held on San Francisco’s Market Street after BART officials closed the Civic Center and Powell stations. BART warned passengers that another protest may disrupt service on Monday, Aug. 29.

The National Journal reported on Aug. 15 that the FCC is in an information-gathering stage of its investigation.

“Anytime communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation," an FCC spokesman told the Journal.

Concerns over the public outcry prompted BART officials to convene a special meeting last week to consider adopting an official policy allowing police to shut off cell phone service on BART in extreme public safety circumstances. Although no action was taken at the meeting, BART is expected to make a decision on the policy in the next several weeks.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.