Let's hope FCC takes BART cellphone shutdown seriously

San Francisco subway system turned off cellphone service to thwart planned protest

It's hard to see how the Federal Communications Commission could turn a blind eye to the Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) shutdown last week of mobile phone service in order to undermine a planned protest over a fatal July shooting by BART police.

And it's not -- apparently, anyway. The FCC said Monday it would look into the three-hour service shutdown, which also cut mobile 911 communications.

From PCWorld:

"Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation," said FCC spokesman Neil Grace in an e-mail. "We are continuing to collect information about BART's actions and will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks."

A sober, neutral comment such as this probably is appropriate at this point, but let's hope it doesn't indicate the FCC's inclination to conduct a superficial probe and issue lukewarm disapproval.

Preventing mobile phone users in a subway system from accessing 911 -- even for just three hours -- is pretty serious business. A lot of bad things can happen in that short time frame -- heart attacks, physical assaults, robberies, etc. And that's not even taking into account the Constitutional issues that civil liberties groups are raising.

This kind of action by BART should be unacceptable in a free society. So people were going to protest. Big deal. You get police down there to make sure things don't get out of hand. You don't shut down communications services for everyone. Seriously, is BART running trains through Egypt now?

Beyond fining BART, there's not much the FCC can do after the fact. But what it can do going forward is make it clear that similar actions in San Francisco and elsewhere pose an unacceptable risk to the public. Putting teeth into that, though, might require legislation, since we may not be able to rely on common sense.

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