Global Constant
Steve Nay's ramblings

BART and free speech

There was some backlash against BART’s decision a few weeks ago to shut down cell phone and data service in its tunnels to stifle a suspected protest. In a “special meeting” today, they stated that this was a mistake that would only be repeated in the event “at the 9-11 magnitude”.

I first wondered how they were able to “shut down” cell service. This Scientific American article incorrectly claims that all the cell service underground ran on BART’s own WiFi network, which they might have rights to shut down at will. Cell phone service could only be provided by repeaters from the cellular providers themselves. BART’s initial statement on the installation of the system back in 2008 confirms this: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint all cooperated in the installation of repeaters underground.

That presents a bit of a problem. If BART wanted to shut down cell service, they would have to shut down the equipment provided by the cellular companies. EFF Austin has an excellent statement on the matter. Here’s a relevant piece:

We do find it somewhat interesting that the mobile service providers claim to have had no involvement in, or previous knowledge of, the decision and action to take down. If this is true, then it appears there have been at least two separate violations of federal law.

One violation was of section 333 of the Communications Act, on the part of BART. The other is a little more interesting. The cellular companies didn’t know beforehand that BART wanted to take down their repeaters, yet BART was still able to do it. That suggests that they had given at least some control of their hardware over to BART, which violates their FCC licenses. That doesn’t bode well either for BART or for the service providers.

One thing strikes me as ironic. Here’s what happened when BART was originally considering installing the system:

When BART first broached the idea in mid-2001 of wiring its nether regions for wireless reception, many passengers squawked about having to listen to nonstop chatter from cellular phones. In response, BART conducted a pair of polls -- one a random telephone survey, the other an online poll open to anyone with Internet access. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred while the surveys were being taken, and BART officials believe the widely publicized use of cell phones during the attacks persuaded many passengers to support wiring the tunnels.

Nine-eleven was cited as one of the factors that swayed public opinion to favor underground cell service. An emergency like that showcases the invaluable uses of technology in disaster management and recovery. Yet BART now cites that type of emergency as a legitimate reason to shut down the service.


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