NCS homeland pilots progress

Wireless Priority Service

The National Communications System (NCS) is in the midst of moving to the new Homeland Security Department, but that hasn't stopped the agency from continuing programs focused on the government's communications needs for national security and emergency preparedness.

Brenton Greene, NCS' deputy manager, said the continued rollout of the Wireless Priority Service (WPS), which makes it easier for national security officials and first responders equipped with special phones to make emergency calls, is the agency's top priority despite some recent funding issues.

The WPS achieved initial operating capability last month, but its $73 million budget subsequently was cut because it was funded through the Defense Department, which is no longer responsible for homeland security initiatives, Greene said. However, the Office of Management and Budget is in the process of replacing the program's full budget and the service is still on schedule, he said.

NCS is composed of 22 agencies and was formerly co-managed by the White House and the Defense Information Systems Agency. The agency assists the president, the National Security Council and federal agencies with their telecommunications functions and coordinates the government's national security and emergency preparedness communications.

The WPS program is operating on T-Mobile USA Inc.'s national network. The goal is to also include all the other wireless providers for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) service by the time the system is completed at the end of this year, Greene said.

GSM is an open, nonproprietary system with international roaming capability that is used in nearly 200 countries. Other GSM carriers include AT&T Wireless, Cingular and Nextel.

The initial carrier for the WPS service is T-Mobile, which signed a contract with the NCS through DynCorp, the agency's Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) and Wireless Priority integration contractor.

A limited WPS service has been operational in the Washington and New York metropolitan areas since May 2002. The initial nationwide capability is now available in New York City and Washington D.C., as well as in metropolitan areas surrounding Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Boston; Jacksonville, Fla.; Louisville, Ky.; Memphis, Tenn.; Miami; Mobile, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; New Orleans; Norfolk, Va.; Philadelphia, and Richmond, Va. Additional markets will be added nationwide over the next few months, as will further enhancements to the capability, Greene said.

The contract with T-Mobile was signed Jan. 17 and is worth nearly $4.8 million, which will fund the project through July 2003, said John Graves, the GETS program director who also manages WPS, adding that additional funds will be added as services expand.

The service will continue to evolve in 2004, and Greene said he then would like to add wireless providers—such as Sprint and Verizon Communications—that use the Code Division Multiple Access standard so that all the major U.S. carriers are participating in the WPS program.

Elsewhere in the NCS, Greene said three other pilots that were launched late last year are making progress and are included in the NCS fiscal 2004 budget request:

* The Global Early Warning Information System (GEWIS) pilot project includes government and industry partners examining the Internet's health and topology. The pilot project examines how well critical areas of the Internet are performing worldwide and then uses that data to notify government, industry or U.S. allies of impending cyberattacks or possible disturbances. The GEWIS pilot is scheduled to have a prototype in place by "late spring" and is funded at $5 million this year, with the same amount expected next year.

* The emergency notification system pilot program uses Internet-based, wireless and other telecommunications means to notify key personnel in the Washington, D.C., area during a national disaster. A limited pilot, which is in place for a "couple hundred users," includes the contact information of key employees and would attempt to reach them by the fastest method available. The first tests were completed in October 2002. The program is funded at $5 million this year, with a similar amount expected in fiscal 2004.

* The pilot to establish a backup dial tone for key federal buildings recently began a few prototyping efforts, including focusing on free-space optics, satellite communications and voice over IP. The program's $5 million budget is expected to remain the same next year.

All three pilots have shown promise, but their futures will ultimately depend on decisions that are made as the Homeland Security Department is formed, Greene said.

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