On Monday afternoon, a report that Boston's cellphone service had been suspended circulated widely:
This turned out not to be true — though many cell towers were likely overloaded:
But there is a way for law enforcement to initiate a cellphone shutdown. And it's happened before:
In response to the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, which targeted multiple trains and one bus, authorities temporarily shut down cellular access in New York tunnels. Phones couldn't make calls in the Lincoln, Holland, Battery and Queens tunnels — a call that was made by the federal government and executed by the Port Authority without carriers' permission. The intention was to guard against cellphone-triggered explosive devices. But the result, according to a National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee report, was "disorder for both Government and the private sector at a time when use of the communications infrastructure was most needed."
So, in 2006, the Committee set out to codify a set of rules for how emergency interruptions can be initiated, resulting in a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303, also called "Emergency Wireless Protocols."
According to SOP 303, which has not been published but has been described in government documents, shutdowns are organized through an agency called the National Coordinating Center, which was created after AT&T's phone monopoly was broken up in the early 80s to establish a central channel for emergency communication between telecom companies and the government.
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." (The NYC tunnel situation was unusual in that the cell towers, by virtue of being placed in tunnels operated by the Port Authority, could be easily shut down without carrier consent).
Cellphone carriers were, and still are, onboard with SOP 303. According to their trade organization, the CTIA: "The development and implementation of SOP 303 involved substantial government and industry stakeholder participation, with the wireless industry supporting the procedures adopted."
Critics of SOP 303 have declared it flatly unconstitutional. And recently the FCC has expressed public concern about a lack of sufficient regulation and transparency concerning cellphone shutdowns. In a Public Notice last year, which was issued in response to a controversial cellphone shutdown in California's BART train system, the Commission wrote of insufficient "discussion, analysis,
and consideration of the questions raised by intentional interruptions of wireless service by government authorities," and requested input from the public.
The notice reflected just how uncertain and untested the system is: it asked not only whether or not such shutdowns are legal, and whether or not wireless carriers can "still ensure that the public can make wireless 911 calls" during an interruption, but whether or not the FCC even has any authority in these issues.
For the time being, though? Yes, in a state of emergency, it's possible that the government could compel a carrier to shut down cell service.
The FCC has not yet returned a request for comment.