The Right Cell Phone Policy In Boston.

April 15, 2013 ,

The Associated Press reported that cell phone
service had been shut down in Boston
 in the aftermath of today’s tragic
Boston Marathon bombing. Happily, this report — sourced to an anonymous
official — appears to be mistaken. Verizon and Sprint report that their
networks are overwhelmed by the sudden spike in volume (common after
a sudden disaster) but they have not been asked to suspend service and are in
fact looking to increase capacity.

It is times like this when we remember exactly how dependent we
are on cell phones, and why suspending cell service in an emergency like this
(as happened with the BART nearly 2 years ago) is such
a phenomenally bad idea. As a legal matter, the legality of
law enforcement asking for a shut down of local cell service is much stronger
than in the BART case. This is, arguably, the “ticking bomb” scenario that
arguably justifies a brief shut down to protect lives. But the odds
against a terrorist using a cell phone to detonate a follow up device after a
shut off order are fairly low (terrorists try to coordinate, the explosions
fairly closely, as we saw in Boston, and generally don’t like to rely on cell
phones because they are not sufficiently reliable for this purpose).

As we are seeing in action, cell phones become the best
anti-panic technology deployable at times like these. Everyone is calmer when
they can stay in touch with family and loved ones, or receive updates
from the authorities. Every “I’m fine” texted to a frantic relative is one less
person tying up the information hotline or — even worse — going out to search.
Indeed, with about 35% of people now without any landline service, cutting cell
service would isolate about a third of people at just the moment they need to
stay in contact. And while I have no information on how people are contacting
the tip line, I would imagine that many are doing so with the most convenient
phone available — their mobile phone.

The event also highlights the vital contribution of open
WiFi hotspots as a furthering communication. At a time like this, every single
means of communication comes into play. This is what I mean when I talk about
the reliability that comes from redundancy. The ability to shift among networks
can cut down on congestion and facilitate communication by public safety
authorities. If we deployed mobile hot spots as well as cells on wheels (COWs),
we could have substantial impact on the congestion situation. Something to
think about as part of overall emergency preparedness. Because, sadly, there
will be a next time. And when it comes, we will need to remember that we want
to enhance communication and the flow of information and avoid congestion
wherever possible.

Last summer, my
colleagues at Public Knowledge and a number of other public interest
organizations wrote these comments to
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on why shutting down cell phone
service for any extended period would be a very bad idea and probably a
violation of law. (See also my colleague Sherwin Siy’s blog post here. The tragic events in Boston demonstrate once
again how critical mobile phone service have become to all of us in a disaster,
and what a terrible mistake it would be if local officials actually did shut
down cell service at a time like this.

(I used to watch the Marathon go by on Heartbreak Hill
(Commonwealth Ave, well back from the finish line) growing up in Boston. I was one of those
frantically texting and posting status updates asking if family and friends
were safe. I’ve been grateful for every response.)

About Harold Feld

Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”