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Boston Cell Service Wasn't Shut Down, But Could Have Been
SOP 303 Gives Government Authority Under Classified Conditions
by Karl Bode 09:32AM Wednesday Apr 17 2013
After the Boston bombings earlier this week the Associated Press incorrectly reported that cell carriers in Boston had been told by the government to shut down their cellular networks "to prevent any potential remote detonations of explosives." That story wound up being false and was ultimately deleted by the AP as it quickly became clear that some Boston cellular networks were simply struggling (as usual) under heavy load during emergency.

While the government didn't force carriers to pull the plug, Mother Jones explores that the government technically does have the power to do so under SOP 303:
quote:
"No one in Washington or in any statehouse or bunker anywhere can press a button and shut down phone service," explains Harold Feld, vice president at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group focused on communications and technology policy. But although there's no physical kill switch, there is Standard Operating Procedure 303, a secret agreement between telecommunications giants and the government that outlines "a shutdown and restoration process for use by commercial and private wireless networks during national crises," according to a government report on the subject."
SOP 303 is classified, so nobody knows specifically what conditions need to be triggered for that shut down to occur. You might recall that in 2011, San Francisco BART managers took immense heat for shutting down cell service in San Francisco to try and thwart the ability of protesters to coordinate. Since the design of our cell networks results in them failing so often during emergencies, it's not clear how many users would be able to tell the difference.

As the bombing story quiets down over the next few weeks, you can surely expect renewed calls for that nationwide emergency communications network we have spent twelve years failing to build due primarily to Congressional bickering.

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BosstonesOwn

join:2002-12-15
Wakefield, MA

I call BS !

I had no service errors on my gsm phones for 2 hours.

This doesn't happen from congestion !
medbuyer

join:2003-11-20
kudos:4

Re: I call BS !

said by BosstonesOwn:

I had no service errors on my gsm phones for 2 hours.

This doesn't happen from congestion !

oh it does...

back home in SEA, when one of the telco's network gets congested, nobody can make outgoing or incoming calls.

this happens specially during Christmas and New Year when everybody is trying to call their loved ones back home to greet them.

to think all the telco's back home tout to have the biggest network all over the country.

you're just lucky that telco's here are bigger and didn't actually shut down...

we complain of bad cell service here, spotty signals, dropped calls...we are way better than other countries I know...

it just saddens me that things like what happened in Boston do happen, but then again, compared that to where I came from. I could almost say, I am used to it. Sad to say, things are a little worst back home.

We're lucky to be here. I would help in anyway I can.

ptrowski
Got Helix?
Premium
join:2005-03-14
Putnam, CT
kudos:4
Sure it does. If towers are overloaded such as they were on Monday you would have zero service. You have 10's of thousands of people in one spot using their phones.
moonpuppy

join:2000-08-21
Glen Burnie, MD

Re: I call BS !

said by ptrowski:

Sure it does. If towers are overloaded such as they were on Monday you would have zero service. You have 10's of thousands of people in one spot using their phones.

Like during a major sporting event when the towers near a stadium will routinely get overloaded.

ptrowski
Got Helix?
Premium
join:2005-03-14
Putnam, CT
kudos:4

Re: I call BS !

Southbysouthwest as well....

jimk
Premium
join:2006-04-15
Raleigh, NC
Reviews:
·Time Warner Cable
·voip.ms

2 recommendations

said by BosstonesOwn:

I had no service errors on my gsm phones for 2 hours.

This doesn't happen from congestion !

Yes it does. 2 years ago, there was a 5.9 magnitude earthquake in Virginia that knocked out service for an hour or so in Raleigh, NC. Nothing was damaged and nobody was injured - everyone was just using their phones to call their friends to ask if they felt it (due to the distance, it was so minor that a lot of people here didn't even notice it).

So if something that minor can cause a network overload, a real emergency with can definitely do it. Not only were many people calling emergency services, but they were also checking up on friends in family. The second part is what caused the service to collapse.

In an overload situation, most phones behave very strangely. They will generally try to try to initiate the call on any technology available, so you might see the device switching from 3G to 2G, and you might see signal fluctuations as it tries to switch between different frequency bands (usually PCS 1900MHz and Cellular 800MHz). A no service available or call failed message doesn't necessarily mean the phone is shut down - it can just mean that the network is overloaded.

Some network technologies also suffer from cell breathing, where a cell site's coverage shrinks when utilization is high. This could cause a no service situation depending on how far you are form the cell site, but it doesn't mean it has been shut down.

No wireless network can handle everyone picking up their phone and using it all at one time. In an emergency, avoid making non emergency calls. Somebody else's life may depend on it.
ISurfTooMuch

join:2007-04-23
Tuscaloosa, AL

1 recommendation

Re: I call BS !

Excellent post.

All I'll add is that I used to see this on a regular basis on weekends when we had a home football game in town. As soon as the crowds rolled in, you'd first lose reliable service, then most calls and texts would stop working, then, when networks got really congested, all sorts of weird things would happen. With TDMA/AMPS phones, the handset would sometimes drop off digital altogether and try to use AMPS, which would also often fail. Sometimes, signal levels would drop, and the phone would just show no service. Even when you had service, calls would sometimes ring busy, and sometimes they simply wouldn't connect at all.

Things are much better here now, especially on Verizon, but I'll still see the occasional problem, especially when I'm in the stadium during a game. I can have a great signal, then it will drop to practically nothing.

And these issues aren't limited to call service. Wi-fi can behave in much the same way. You can be getting a strong signal from an access point, but if there are too many devices either on it or even nearby, you either can't connect or you can connect but won't be able to reach the Internet. In other situations, the signal level from the AP will bounce up and down from very strong to nonexistent.

inlawsscall

@dtra.mil

Re: I call BS !

Damn I get exactly the same issues when the in-laws call. They never seem to get through!
Androidian

join:2012-12-14
Purcellville, VA
Reviews:
·Comcast
I remember that earthquake. I was upstairs and the whole house shook a bit - felt like multiple giant, heavy trucks were rumbling by. I think I even felt like grabbing on to something.

I must have been one of the first to call out, as I picked up my phone immediately and dialed and got through. Five minutes later, when I tried to make a second call, all circuits were busy... That's when things like Google Voice come in real handy.
--
A sane approach to our federal budget: NO tax increases / 15% cuts across-the-board / defunding of all ObamaCare-enacted programs.
TBBroadband

join:2012-10-26
Fremont, OH
the same thing can happen with a wire network as well remember "all switches are busy at this time". Still happens today.

ITALIAN926

join:2003-08-16
kudos:2
Even if what you say is true, why so mad ?
Kearnstd
Space Elf
Premium
join:2002-01-22
Mullica Hill, NJ
kudos:1
no network can be designed to have 100% of users active when its job is true point to point communications. Even land lines can give you "all circuits are busy" in a true emergency.

This is why government agencies have hardlines that are hotlines, Even if the network is flooded a red phone in the Pentagon can always call the president.
--
[65 Arcanist]Filan(High Elf) Zone: Broadband Reports

rollinraver

join:2002-04-27
Buffalo, NY

Just as with 9/11...

That landline pay phone if you found one, would have worked no problem. But wireless is the best replacement. Just ask big red!!!
HarryH3
Premium
join:2005-02-21
kudos:2
Reviews:
·Suddenlink

1 recommendation

Re: Just as with 9/11...

said by rollinraver:

That landline pay phone if you found one, would have worked no problem. But wireless is the best replacement. Just ask big red!!!

Nope. It wouldn't have worked either. Even though there is wire running to every landline phone, that wire goes to switches that connect to a very limited number of lines that actually run all the way to the main switching center. When all of those trunk lines are already in use, then you either get a fast busy or the old "We're sorry, all circuits are currently busy. Please try your call again later".

ITALIAN926

join:2003-08-16
kudos:2

Re: Just as with 9/11...

Yes, most of the landlines in NY on 9-11 didnt work as well.
silbaco
Premium
join:2009-08-03
USA
True. However, wireless will most often times congest long before wired landline phones do.
CXM_Splicer
Looking at the bigger picture
Premium
join:2011-08-11
NYC
kudos:2

1 edit
Your description is not entirely accurate. Each landline DOES have a wire running all the way back to the switch. The trunk lines connect central offices together and have been migrated to fiber for many years now.

From what I have been hearing, landlines were still working fine after the explosions.

quote:
Weisberg [a doctor who ran the marathon] made his way back to his hotel, where there was a line to use the landlines to call home.

»blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/04/bir···d_b.html

Edit: At the rate Verizon and AT&T are going, those backup landlines will all be gone in a few years so get a ham radio now
tanzam75

join:2012-07-19

1 recommendation

Re: Just as with 9/11...

said by CXM_Splicer:

From what I have been hearing, landlines were still working fine after the explosions.

Ma Bell really gold-plated the landline network -- albeit unevenly, across the network.

This is because AT&T used to earn a regulated rate of return on capital expenditure in the days of the Bell System monopoly. The more money they spent on infrastructure, the more profit they were allowed to make. They intentionally overbuilt a lot of the network to handle peak periods and provide redundancy in case of nuclear war.

In the wireless world, by contrast, it's about seeing how little you can spend, and still get away with it. The less money you spend, the more you get to keep as your profit.
Androidian

join:2012-12-14
Purcellville, VA
Reviews:
·Comcast

Putting my tin foil hat on...

Do we really know for a fact that SOP 303 wasn't enacted in Boston? Since this is one of those super-secret things, wouldn't it also make sense that the government doesn't want you to know when they're meddling with our ability to communicate with loved ones?

I wouldn't put it above those currently in power to try to abuse it when they can; after all, we saw plenty of that from 2009-2011.
--
A sane approach to our federal budget: NO tax increases / 15% cuts across-the-board / defunding of all ObamaCare-enacted programs.

inteller
Sociopaths always win.

join:2003-12-08
Tulsa, OK

interesting...

...so 3rd world governments like Syria and Libya have the ability to shut down entire phone networks, but a mighty superpower doesn't?
--
"WHEN THE LAUGH TRACK STARTS THEN THE FUN STARTS!"
BiggA

join:2005-11-23
EARTH

It's not that complicated

I doubt they would need any special classified procedure. If the FBI or another federal agency called and asked for cell phone service to get shut down, I'm sure there's a price for that on the price list, and the carriers would be happy to comply.

In a public safety-sensitive situation like that though, it would be really dangerous to actually shut them down. At least if they do what they can, then it is of more benefit than not having them at all.

They should also have a way to switch to SMS- and 911-only operation when they get super duper overloaded like that.

b000m

@myvzw.com

Yes they can

Just detonate a nuke up in the atmosphere, instant EMP bomb that wipes out all electronics..

might fry the bomb, might set it off, but since when does the government care.