BART defends cell phone blackout as 'necessary'

The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) told the FCC that a temporary shutdown of cellular service to prevent an imminent threat is necessary to protect public safety, according to an FCC filing.

BART, which sparked a firestorm of criticism after it shut down cell phone service in several stations last summer to thwart a protest, was responding to an inquiry the FCC started in March. The inquiry is seeking guidance on whether, and when, government or law enforcement agencies should be allowed to interrupt cell phone services to ensure public safety.

In its filing, Grace Crunican, BART's general manager, said that BART recognizes and respects the public's need for access to wireless devices, but that since it is responsible for the public safety of more than 350,000 passengers each weekday, it needs to have the tools to stop wireless service that might harm passengers or BART employees.

"A temporary interruption of cell phone service, under extreme circumstances where harm and destruction are imminent, is a necessary tool to protect passengers and respond to potential acts of terrorism or other acts of violence," Cruncian wrote. "For example, wireless devices may be used to detonate explosives. Such an explosion in a system like BART, with much of its approximately 100 miles of track located under either metropolitan downtown areas or the San Francisco Bay itself, would be devastating, not just for the passengers, but for the public at large located around the devastation or affected by flooding that could be caused by damage to the trans bay tube."

BART's current policy "requires a determination that strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity exists and that temporary interruption of cellular service is essential to protect against potential harm to passengers."

BART also requires that such disruptions are reported to first responders and BART's board of directors. Cruncian said the FCC should consider "adopting requirements which include a prompt report to it of the circumstances surrounding any future shutdowns, as well as a requirement that notice to passengers and the public of what has occurred during the temporary unavailability of wireless services be given."

When it issued the inquiry the FCC said it was not not considering new regulations, but said it might provide further guidance on the issue.

For more:
- see this FCC filing (PDF)
- see this IDG News Service article

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