After the tragic explosions during the Boston Marathon on Monday, rumors circulated about whether authorities had shut down cell phone service to prevent any other detonations. That turned out not to be true, as ABCNews reported that no wireless carriers had shut down their cell service.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. BuzzFeed’s John Herrman reports on the so-called Standard Operating Procedure 303, which allows cell service to be shut down through a centralized emergency channel for wireless carriers called the National Coordinating Center:
Requests to shut down service can be initiated by “State Homeland Security Advisors,” to whom state authorities — governors, for example — have direct access. The requests are submitted to the NCC, which vets them to see if a shutdown is warranted, then informs affected carriers, which perform the actual shutdown. SOP 303 gives the NCC authority to enact a shutdown “both within a localized area, such as a tunnel or bridge, and within an entire metropolitan area.”
At least that’s how it works in theory. It’s unclear if authorities have ever actually invoked SOP 303, and advocacy groups argue that the procedure is unconstitutional.
The last notable shutdown of cell service in the United States, by Bay Area Rapid Transit authorities looking to squelch a protest, didn’t involve wireless carrier participation. BART stopped the transmission of cell signals on its own, an action that even a BART board member called “unprecedented.” The move has prompted an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission into the legality of shutting down cell service.
There are no easy answers to this issue. No one wants a situation where more explosives could be detonated by cell phone, as rumors suggested on Monday, but the BART protests show how authorities can abuse their power over wireless communication to muzzle free speech. And of course, cutting off service also means eliminating a vital means of communication during emergencies. That may explain why the government is still pondering the matter, and why cell service didn’t go dark on Monday.