Thursday, July 23, 2009

Authority's control over telecommunication services

It was the morning of the presidential election in Iran. I logged in to facebook and the first message that caught my eyes was one from a relative in Iran. It said “God! what’s going on?! why SMS is not working?!!!!!” Why does SMS not work on the day that it was supposed to be used to collect third party independent information of the ballots counts?! Why is SMS down when it is the main communication medium of the opposition?!

Earlier on that morning a friend of mine received a phone call. “Can you shut down all the SMS traffic that pass through your servers? ” the man on the other end of the line asked. My friend is the administrator for a service providers of the second mobile phone carrier in Iran. He questioned the authority of the caller and responded that he cannot shut down the server just by a phone call (from a manager in the carrier company). Evidently, if my friend did not do it, someone must have pulled the plug!(You can find more information about the SMS ban here.)

In Ethiopia the government shut down the SMS service to break the communication bridge of the opposition in 2005 election; I learned from an Ethiopian girl, who sat next to me on a plane from San Diego to Seattle. The SMS service were down for almost two years in Ethiopia! (I also remembered hearing that news on the National Public Radio.) Iran and Ethiopia are two examples of authority's control of telecommunication services in countries with totalitarian governments. What are the policies in democratic countries like the United States?

In the United States, shortly after the 2005 bombing in London, the Port Authority in New York City interrupted the wireless service in the transportation tunnels to Manhattan. The transmitters providing wireless service for Holland and Lincoln tunnels were shut down for almost two weeks after the London attack. There are still debates on wisdom of shutting down telecommunication to prevent terrorist attacks. However, carriers work with the government to develop a program to shut down small portions of their networks if there is a threat to public safety. I was wondering if the public safety is the only legitimate reason for disrupting telecommunication services.

I searched through the information available on the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) web site, looking for an answer. Particularly, I reviewed the communication act of 1934 and browsed through other communication acts. After a few hours of online search with no success, I called mobile service providers and regulators to find the answer to my question. One of the associates at Cellular Telephones Industries Association (CTIA) was kind enough to give me a general back ground. I would like to particularly emphasize that his comments should not be considered in any way as an official CTIA position. I will update this post with direct references whenever I hear from the director of public affair at CTIA, or the respective associates at FCC.

Just as a general background, both the FCC and CTIA have been given powers and authorities by congress that could, theoretically, be used to shut down Commercial Mobile Wireless Services over small or large areas. There are strong forces that work against them exercising these powers in most situations. Many 911 calls are sent through wireless phones and public safety entities rely on wireless for some of their applications and as back up to their own radio systems. Wireless Carriers have paid hefty auction fees for the spectrum they use to operate their networks. If these authorities were exercised arbitrarily, brigades of lawyers would be quickly deployed to question whether any such action was legal and necessary.

In a nut shell, theoretically it is possible to shut down telecommunication services in the United States. Practically, it is almost impossible!

edited by Behnam Analui