Public Interest Groups Petition FCC Against BART Wireless Shutdown

Published October 6, 2011

Nine public interest groups have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to rule San Francisco transit authorities broke federal law in August of this year when they shut down wireless service in some of the city’s public transportation systems.

As reported in the October issue of Infotech & Telecom News, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit agency closed down wireless service in some of its train stations on August 11 to limit the number of people participating in protests against a man shot and killed in July by San Francisco law enforcement official in a BART station. The FCC has stated it will conduct an investigation of BART’s actions.

Filed August 29, the “Emergency Petition for Declaratory Ruling That Disconnection of Telecommunications Services Violates the Communications Act,” argues BART illegally violated the Communications Act because it deliberately “interfered with access to Commercially Mobile Radio Service by the public.”

Importance of the Situation
Nine civil liberties groups signed the petition, including libertarian groups such as the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as left-of-center groups such as Public Knowledge. Other organizations participating in the petition include the Broadband Institute of California, Center for Democracy and Technology, Center for Media Justice, Media Access Project, Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

The groups state the situation is so important the FCC should not wait for the outcome of its investigation to make a decision.

“The Commission must act immediately to clarify that local governments do not have blanket authority to interrupt access to [mobile phone] networks,” reads the petition. “Allowing local governments to interrupt access to wireless communications networks threatens the stability of the network, endangers public safety, and infringes the right of members of the public to access the phone system.”

‘Law Is Unclear’
BART initially claimed the shutdown was justified by the potential safety risks of protests on crowded train platforms, but subsequently apologized.

“I think that BART has since moderated its actions,” said Harold Feld, legal director for Public Knowledge. “Nevertheless, a clarification from the FCC is enormously important so that local governments know the appropriate limit of their authority,” he said.

“We have asked the FCC to issue an order clarifying that local government authorities do not have the power to shut down cell service, even where they have physical control over the facilities,” said Feld. “Declaratory rulings are forward looking, designed to clarify situations where the law is arguably unclear,” Feld explained.

Feld continued: “The BART example shows how easy it is to see the potential danger [of] coordination among those trying to disrupt traffic as compared to the harms of suppressing speech or disabling the tools of speech.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.

Internet Info

“FCC May Investigate San Francisco Mobile Device Blackout,” Bruce Edward Walker, Infotech & Telecom News, October 2011:

“Emergency Petition for Declaratory Ruling That Disconnection of Telecommunications Services Violates the Communications Act,” Electronic Frontier Foundation et al., August 29, 2011: