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Shutdowns Of Wireless Service Threaten Public Safety, Groups Tell FCC

May 1, 2012 ,

No
government or private company should be able to shut down wireless service in
an emergency, several public interest groups told the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) in comments filed late April 30.

The
Commission had asked for comments on the issue in the wake of a shutdown of
service in San Francisco by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District.

In a joint filing, Public
Knowledge, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, the Benton Foundation Free Press, the Minority Media and
Telecommunications Council, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and the Open
Technology Institute at the New America Foundation said that a service shutdown
would violate a “general principle of providing access to wireless
communications and preventing their interruption during emergencies has been a
cornerstone of public safety policy” that started with the sinking of the
Titanic 100 years ago

The groups argued that there have been no cases which would
justify such a drastic step and in which the benefits would outweigh the
harms.  The filing said: “Deliberately
interrupting wireless service, in nearly all cases, will mean disrupting the
communications of every person in the affected area.  Unlike the disconnection of a wireline connection, which can
target an individual telephone facility, wireless interruption will necessarily
prohibit the communications of completely innocent parties—precisely those
parties closest to the site where the emergency is located or anticipated.”

The groups noted that
communications about an emergency aren’t all transmitted via a 9-1-1 emergency
system: “For example, individuals often provide information to
non-emergency channels such as news outlets or publicly-accessible sites like
blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or other social media services.  Information disseminated in real time,
whether to professional journalists or to the Internet at large, can serve
valuable public safety purposes, informing first responders and other members
of the public of hazardous or inaccessible areas and alerting people to important
breaking developments.”

Similarly,
private companies or other entities should not have the power to shut down
communications even though they might be under great pressure to do so, the
groups said:  ” The
Commission should be clear in its recommendations, rules, or statements that
private entities should not interrupt wireless services during emergency
situations.”