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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.)