Hard Cell

The FCC's secret cell phone map


Since 2004 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has compiled a map of cell phone provider outages across the country. Would you like to see it? Sorry: The FCC immediately classified all the information, on the grounds that if it fell into "hostile hands," it could "be used to exploit…vulnerabilities to undermine or attack networks."

Journalists were intrigued by the potentially useful information in the map, disappointed that they couldn't see it, and puzzled at the rationale. Last year, attempting to discover just what the terrorist threat could be, MSNBC consumer reporter Bob Sullivan filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the data. His request was denied, as expected-but for an unexpected reason. Instead of citing national security, the FCC invoked the phone companies' business interests.

"Given the competitive nature of many segments of the communications industry, and the importance that outage information may have on the selection of a service provider or manufacturer," the commission told Sullivan, "we conclude that there is a presumptive likelihood of substantial competitive harm from disclosure of information in outage reports." Sullivan surmises that "the legal staff took a bit of a shortcut. It was classified for both reasons, and this was the one they chose to give me."

Neither explanation indicates why the old Network Outage Reporting System database-the one that didn't include wireless information-was public for more than a decade, including three years after September 11, 2001. "Nobody's been able to tell it in a way that makes it rational," Sullivan says.