I suppose I am, at heart, really a telecom lawyer after all. My reaction to the news that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police shut down cellphone networks in a number of stations had nothing to do with democracy, the First Amendment, Tahrir Square, etc. With all deference to the importance of these concerns, my reaction was WHAT DO YOU MEAN THESE IDIOTS MESSED WITH THE PHONE SYSTEM! From my perspective, and the perspective of traditional telecom law, BART could just as well have turned off the local central office and all this chatter about whether or not BART is a public forum is just a distraction.
Obviously, however, no one at BART thinks of cell phones as the phone system. In BART’s open letter explaining what they did and why it was cool, BART focuses on the First Amendment /public forum issue and completely skips the fact that they shut off a phone system. Mind you, I suppose I can’t blame them – much. A number of folks are asking if there is a right to cell phone service as if there were a novel question rather than something settled by decades of telecom law.
Also missed by most: this goes well beyond BART. If BART gets away with including “we can shut down cell phone service” in its tool box you can guarantee that other local law enforcement agencies will start copying this – and all for the best of reasons. Because what could possibly go wrong when you pull the plug on a critical piece of infrastructure whenever some local police chief or city council person or whoever decides they need to do something about these “flash mobs” or “rioters” or whatever? BART emphasizes the narrowness of the impact. But Montgomery County, MD, where I live, is worried about an outbreak of flash mobs of teenagers that materialize to raid local stores. Suppose they decide to start turning off the phone grid in neighborhoods they believe are “at risk?” Sure, lets just knock out phone service for a neighborhood for a few hours. What could be the harm – and it’s all in a good cause, right?
There is a reason we do not mess with the phone system, and why that doesn’t change when the phone system is wireless. Legal reasoning below . . . .