Priority wireless pilot program in the works

The government is one step closer to having a priority wireless access system for use during emergencies.

Government officials have been pushing for such a system since the events of Sept. 11 wreaked havoc on wireless telephone networks.

After a deal with Verizon Wireless for a priority access system fell through late last year, VoiceStream Wireless may provide that service starting with a pilot program in New York City and Washington, D.C., scheduled to begin in May, according to Reuters.

The pilot program, announced March 26, will ensure that mobile phone calls from national security and emergency personnel on VoiceStream's network will be connected regardless of the amount of traffic on the system.

The new system will be part of the White House's National Communications System and eventually will be expanded nationwide, Brent Greene, deputy manager of NCS, told Reuters. He said a competition is in progress "to put in such capability nationally that would have a much broader national footprint by the end of December and then a year later full operational capability."

The Federal Communications Commission was still in the process of approving a waiver for VoiceStream Wireless for the priority access system, said an NCS spokesman, adding that the Reuters story saying that the FCC had already granted the waiver was premature.

The waiver is necessary for wireless telecommunications companies to develop and implement a short-term immediate solution in selected markets for wireless priority access in those areas during national emergencies without meeting the queuing and other requirements established in FCC rules.

Tom Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), said that the VoiceStream deal, which is designed to minimize the impact on wireless subscribers while enabling essential government functions to continue in an emergency, is "the right thing to do," but should be taken even further.

Wheeler asked the government to "free up the additional wireless spectrum it has long bottled up" in order to better serve the nation's more than 130 million wireless customers.

At the Milcom conference last October, Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege Jr., director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, said the wireless priority system was a "national priority" and would be used to aid emergency response efforts in selected cities.

The government already has a priority system for landline communications: the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, which worked effectively in the aftermath of Sept. 11, said Raduege, who also is manager of NCS. GETS, which gives government workers a code and categorizes them for priority access, is viewed as the model for the wireless priority access system.

Less than a week after Raduege's comments, various media outlets reported that an agreement had been struck with Verizon, the nation's largest wireless phone service provider. Verizon issued a statement Nov. 5, 2001, that said the deal was not yet done.

A little more than a month later, Verizon withdrew its request for the FCC waiver stating that "the better course is to respond to the government's emergency communications needs in ways that do not require FCC action at this time."

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