VoiceStream granted wireless waiver

The Federal Communications Commission announced last week that it has granted a temporary waiver to VoiceStream that will enable the company and the government to launch a wireless priority access service for use during emergencies.

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

The FCC waiver, which was approved March 15 and announced April 3, was necessary for wireless telecommunications companies to begin putting wireless priority access in selected areas without meeting the queuing and other requirements set by the FCC.

Although the FCC gave VoiceStream the go-ahead, two FCC commissioners voiced some concerns, including one who partially dissented from the formal opinion (see box, Page 34).

A priority access service (PAS) deal with Verizon Wireless fell through late last year. VoiceStream will now provide this service, beginning with a pilot program in New York City and Washington, D.C., scheduled to begin in May.

The pilot program, which the White House's National Communications System (NCS) 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 NCS and eventually will include more carriers and be expanded nationwide, said Brenton Greene, NCS' deputy manager.

"By granting this waiver, the FCC has taken a major step in establishing nationwide wireless priority service that will meet national security and emergency preparedness communications needs for key government decision-makers, emergency responders and private-sector critical infrastructure managers," Greene said.

Tom Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said the VoiceStream deal, which is designed to minimize the impact on wireless subscribers while enabling essential government functions to continue in an emergency, was "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" to better serve the nation's 130 million wireless customers.

The government will continue to work with VoiceStream to establish service immediately, NCS' Greene said. At the same time, he added, the government will work with the nation's wireless communications industry on a solution that by the end of this year "will enable us to balance national security and emergency preparedness needs while minimizing impact on consumer access to the same wireless infrastructures."

Gary Jones, director of standards policy for VoiceStream Wireless, echoed those sentiments and said the company would help determine "what PAS capabilities could be implemented in an expedited phase, and what could be developed and implemented by the end of 2002 on a nationwide basis."

At the Milcom 2001 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 land-based communications: the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), which worked effectively in the aftermath of Sept. 11, said Raduege, who also is manager of NCS. GETS, in which government workers are given a code and categorized 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, but the nation's largest wireless provider issued a statement Nov. 5 that said the deal was not yet done.

A little more than a month later, Verizon withdrew its request for the FCC waiver stating, "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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