FCC Warned About Cellphone Interruption Guidance

The FCC is getting an earful from public activist groups on its proposal to provide guidance on the circumstances under which cellphone service can be interrupted.

The groups, which include Public Knowledge, Free Press and The Center for Media Justice, say the comments filed so far show that there is hardly a consensus about legitimate grounds for interruptions and warn the FCC that it should be wary of efforts to balance "speculative harms" to public safety against fundamental speech rights.

They are skeptical that the commission can codify wireless interruption policies without seriously infringing speech rights or inviting increased usage of those interruptions. But they also argue that leaving such interruption decision to multiple state and local authorities will only result in uncertainty.

So, they want the FCC to weigh in, but with the message that such interruptions are "extremely disfavored."

The FCC decided to weigh in on the issue following controversy surrounding Bay Area Rapid Transit's August 2011 interruption of wireless service.

For fear of disruptions related to a 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.

In the wake of widespread criticism, BART adopted a policy that cellphone service could only be interrupted by the transit authority under "extraordinary circumstances" like detonating bombs of facilitating violent crimes.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said last December that the FCC would provide guidance on "the constraints that the Communications Act, First Amendment, and other laws and policies place upon potential service interruptions."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.