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Public Knowledge Asks FCC to Clarify BART Cell Phone Service Shutdown

Public Knowledge has joined with a number of interest groups to ask the FCC to clarify that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shut-down of cell phone service Aug. 11 was out of bounds.

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. "BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform," it said.

In a petition, the groups ask the FCC to clarify that "local government agencies may not interfere with access to mobile phone networks." They are concerned BART may repeat the action and that other agencies may take the lead from BART and try to shut down other networks, "potentially disrupting access to communications relating to public safety and protected speech."

Signatories to the petition for declaratory ruling were the Broadband Institute of California, Center for Democracy and Technology, Center for Media Justice, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Media Access Project, Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative.

They argue BART violated Title II of the Communications Act by deliberately interfering with Commercial Mobile Radio Service. If state or local governments want to interrupt such service, they argue, they need to petition station commissions or the FCC for guidelines and procedures, absent which such interruptions are illegal.

"While BART has no affirmative obligation to provide cell service," they told the FCC, "once licensed CMRS providers actively offer wireless service in the BART system, BART cannot lawfully interfere with the provision of that wireless service. BART simply does not have discretion to turn the service on and off as it pleases."

The FCC is looking into the complaints about BART action that followed the Aug. 11 move.