FCC asks for comments on mobile network shutdowns for public safety

The agency's request follows a decision by BART to block service during protests last August

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is seeking public comments on whether it's ever appropriate for law enforcement agencies to shut down mobile networks in the name of public safety, as Bay Area Rapid Transit did last August.

The FCC on Thursday issued a request for comments on mobile service interruptions, with the agency saying there's been "insufficient discussion, analysis and consideration of the questions raised by intentional interruptions of wireless service by government authorities."

BART shut down mobile phone service in some San Francisco-area subway stations for about three hours on Aug. 11, in an effort to prevent a planned protest from happening. Organizers had planned to block subway cars from moving in protest of a shooting by transit police.

Leaders in Egypt also shut down mobile service in early 2011 in an unsuccessful effort to head off protests there.

Several groups protested BART's decision to shut down mobile service, saying the move was illegal and could have blocked BART riders from dialing police or other emergency services.

The FCC, in its request for comments, noted that about 70 percent of 911 emergency calls in the U.S. now come from mobile phones. But some law enforcement agencies have raised concerns that mobile phones can be used to trigger bombs or organize violent flash mobs, the agency said.

The FCC is committed to harnessing mobile networks to protect the public, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

"Our democracy, our society, and our safety all require communications networks that are available and open," he said in a statement. "Any interruption of wireless services raises serious legal and policy issues, and must meet a very high bar."

The FCC asks several questions in its request for comments. Among them:

-- When have government agencies in the U.S. considered interrupting mobile service?

-- When would it be appropriate for agencies to interrupt service?

-- What risks to the public could be caused by interrupted service?

-- Could mobile carriers allow customers to still dial 911 if other service was shut down?

The first round of comments is due to the FCC on April 30.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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