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FCC Seeks Comment on Intentional Wireless Service Interruptions

The FCC is seeking comment on whether government agencies should be able to interrupt wireless service in the interests of public safety.

The issue stems from Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) Aug. 11 shut-down of cell phone service.

For fear of disruptions related to the public protest, BART cut off cell service to its stations. It defended the move by saying that protesters had said they were planning to use mobile devices to coordinate disruptive activities -- a "flash mob" protest of sorts -- at BART stations during rush hour.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said back in December the FCC would "soon provide guidance on the circumstances under which cell phone service can be interrupted," saying it was a high bar and indicating the commission would be "soon announce an open, public process to provide guidance on these issues."

That came Thursday in a public notice. The wording suggests the FCC will keep an open mind about whether the reaction to the flash mob was an overreach or a legitimate precautionary measure. The notice cites "concerns" expressed that wireless service could be used to "trigger the detonation of an explosive device or organize the activities of a violent flash mob."

But the notice also points to the criticisms of BART's blocking and says: "We are concerned that there has been insufficient discussion, analysis, and consideration of the questions raised by intentional interruptions of wireless service by government authorities."

"Our democracy, our society, and our safety all require communications networks that are available and open," the chairman said in a statement. "Any interruption of wireless services raises serious legal and policy issues, and must meet a very high bar. The FCC, as the agency with oversight of our communications networks, is committed to preserving their availability and openness, and to harnessing communications technologies to protect the public."

The FCC has teed up a couple dozen questions, including in what situations government authorities, both here and abroad, would seek to interrupt (block) service, how those agencies determine if such an action is proper, in what situations would it be defensible, what public safety issues are created by interrupting service, if there are situations in which the risks from interruption always outweigh the benefits, and what the FCC's Title II legal authority is in approving or disapproving such actions.