Cutting in line

Companies that offer wireless priority service.

A harried husband trying to find out what to pick up from the store on the way home might find unavailable wireless service to be annoying. For firefighters desperately calling for help, a no-service signal could be fatal.

AT&T Wireless officials recently launched a wireless priority service (WPS) through the National Communications System (NCS). T-Mobile USA Inc., Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications Inc. also offer WPS, which allows approved government employees to get bumped to the head of the line for available bandwidth when trying to place calls. The system determines which emergency workers should have the capability.

T-Mobile officials offer the service nationally, while the other carriers have regional capabilities. Officials at AT&T Wireless, the newest entrant, first made WPS available in Boston for the Democratic National Convention, and they have since extended it to New York City and Washington, D.C., said Chris Hill, vice president of government markets at AT&T Wireless.

NCS officials created the system after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Early backers included Richard Clarke, who was special adviser to the president for cyberspace security at the time, and Defense Information Systems Agency Director Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege Jr.

"We've seen significant interest at the federal level and in the Washington, D.C., area for all of the post-[terrorist attacks] reasons," Hill said. First responders are interested, but so are officials responsible for continuity of operations, he added.

The spread among carriers has been relatively slow because NCS' funding applied first to carriers using Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and Integrated Digital Enhanced Network protocols, according to Hill and the NCS Web site. AT&T Wireless uses GSM. NCS officials plan to extend the service to Code Division Multiple Access carriers — including Sprint PCS and Verizon Communications — by 2006.

— Michael Hardy

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