Can the Government Shut Down Cellphone Networks in a Crisis?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 16 2013 4:17 PM

Silent Cells

Can the government shut down phone networks in a crisis?

A woman talks on the phone after two explosions interrupted the running of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts April 15, 2013.
A woman talks on the phone after two explosions interrupted the Boston Marathon.

Photo by Dominick Reuter/Reuters

After two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, many Boston residents were unable to send or receive cellphone calls. Some believed cell networks were silenced to prevent the detonation of remote-control devices, but representatives from Sprint and Verizon denied that service was intentionally shut down.  (Instead, a Sprint spokeswoman explained, the high volume of calls flowing in and out of the city had overloaded local cell towers.) Is there a procedure for turning off a cellphone network during a crisis?

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Yes. While cell towers are privately owned by telephone companies, they are licensed by the federal government, which has the authority to silence them in an emergency. The National Communications System, a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security, established a protocol for emergency interruptions in 2006, in the wake of a controversial shutdown in New York after the London subway bombings. 

The process can begin when a state authority, such as a governor, makes a shutdown request to state homeland security advisers. These advisers, employees of an agency called the National Coordinating Center, evaluate the request; if it seems valid, they contact the cellphone carriers, which must temporarily dismantle the networks by shutting off their base stations.

On a smaller scale, local law enforcement agencies—including city bluecoats and transit authorities such as San Francisco’s BART or the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—have access to devices that can jam signals over specific areas and block target phones. They do not need consent from telecom companies to use them, which has prompted some First Amendment scholars to wonder whether such disruptions compromise cellphone owners’ right to free speech. In 2011, BART shut down the wireless service in select San Francisco subway stations to stave off protests following the shooting of Charles Blair Hill by police. A civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, compared this to the government-mandated network shutdowns that swept across Egypt during the Arab Spring. “BART pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco,” the group tweeted.  (Meanwhile, a BART spokesman defended the measure by invoking subway riders’ “constitutional right to safety.”)

As BuzzFeed reports, telecom companies have publicly expressed their backing for NCS’s emergency wireless protocols. Their trade organization, the CTIA, said in April 2012: “The development and implementation of [the shutdown process] involved substantial government and industry stakeholder participation, with the wireless industry supporting the procedures adopted.”

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Ladimer Nagurney of the University of Hartford.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful, a new book argues.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 30 2014 1:23 PM What Can Linguistics Tell Us About Writing Better? An Interview with Steven Pinker.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.