FCC probes government shutdowns of wireless networks

The Federal Communications Commission is asking for comments on government agencies that intentionally block cellphone service.

Last year public transit officials in San Francisco sparked an outcry when they shut down wireless service in train stations during protests. After those protests in August, the FCC said it would look into the issue. Now the agency has formally launched a fact-finding effort.

"Any intentional interruption of wireless service, no matter how brief or localized, raises significant concerns and implicates substantial legal and policy questions," the FCC said in a public notice on Thursday. "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."

The FCC is asking people to weigh in on a range of questions, including the potential authority of government agencies to shut down wireless service; and the reasons and risks behind intentional outages.

Blocking access to wireless networks raises serious legal and policy issues, said Harold Feld, legal director for Public Knowledge, which joined other advocacy groups in asking the FCC to rule on the outages last year.

"The same wireless network that police see as a tool for rioters to coordinate is the same wireless network used by peaceful protesters to exercise our fundamental freedoms," he said in a statement. "More than that, in any event, the network will be necessary for people in the area to call for help or to let family members know they are not harmed."

TechFreedom's Larry Downes and Berin Szoka, however, took a much dimmer view.

"Regulatory agencies move far too slowly. Here, it took the FCC six months just to open an inquiry," the pair in a statement. Courts, not new regulation, are best suited to protect First Amendment rights, they said.