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FCC ponders: When is it OK to switch off networks?

San Fran's subway axed mobe coverage during protests

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The FCC wants help deciding who should have the right to switch off mobile networks, and under what circumstances they should be permitted to exercise that right.

Right now it's not clear, on either side of the pond, under what circumstances an authority can request a network operator shutdown part of its network, or if the operator is under any obligation to comply. So the FCC would like to put a proper mechanism in place, once it has found out how people feel about the question.

The public consultation (PDF, surprisingly concise) follows last year's action by the San Francisco BART underground railway which unilaterally decided to switch off mobile coverage to disrupt planned protests. That prompted many people to ask if cutting off the signal wasn't an infringement of their rights, and a risk to public health, but the BART stands by the belief that within its network it can decide who gets to make calls.

The FCC wants to know of other such instances, as there's no central record, but also how people feel about their mobile connectivity. Technically the regulator would like to know if network operators have the capability to disconnect everything except 911 (emergency) calls, or to cut off the public while leaving certain numbers unaffected – the GSM standard includes the ability to prioritise specific numbers, but not to deny service to the rest of them. But mostly the FCC wants to know who should be allowed to make such a request, and if network operators should be obliged to comply.

What's not being discussed is jamming, which remains illegal to everyone except federal bodies who are allowed to knock out mobile networks for the sake of national security. In the UK even that isn't permitted, with jammers being entirely illegal everywhere outside crown land (eg, prisons) – and even in prisons the legality is disputed.

What is perfectly legal is for government departments to ask nicely for mobile networks in specific regions (such as, perhaps, along the route taken by a Presidential visitor) to be switched off for short periods. Weirdly the UK government has the legal right to step in and take control of a mobile network during an national emergency, but only in order to keep it running: there's no provision for the government to shut down all, or even part, of a running network.

But nods and a winks and a voluntary agreement are very much the British way, leaving little room for public oversight, while the Americans are trying to set up a publically accountable mechanism establishing a public right to communications, and who has authority to deny the public that right.

The consultation is open until 30 April, and should provoke some interesting discussion. We can only hope that Ofcom might follow that lead at some point. ®

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