Lack of public safety protections concerns commissioners

Two members of the Federal Communications Commission voiced concerns last week about the FCC's decision to grant a temporary waiver to VoiceStream, enabling the company and the government to launch a wireless priority access service (PAS) for use during emergencies. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said that "protecting the public safety is a primary responsibility of the commission," which led him to agree with the decision to grant VoiceStream a temporary waiver.

But Copps said that customers have the right to know whether "our carrier's PAS will reduce our ability to complete calls in an emergency."

"The commission therefore should have required VoiceStream to disclose to its customers the effect the PAS will have on the ability of those Americans not on a PAS list to make calls during an emergency," he said. "This waiver does not do so. Therefore, I dissent to this portion of the item."

FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin said that although he fully approved of the waiver, he, too, was uneasy about the fact that activating the system "may cause a decrease in the availability of service for 'nonpriority' customers during times when they may need or want their service the most."

Martin said that although the priority service rules "do not require carriers to notify their customers when they have entered into such agreements, this order emphasizes that carriers and consumers are best served by complete disclosure of all relevant terms and conditions."

Martin encouraged the wireless carriers to inform their customers when they have entered into such arrangements. "It is good business practice to provide such notification to customers. Responsible carriers typically inform their customers of such changes to their service and clearly indicate the limitations of any service they offer."

John Stanton, chairman and chief executive officer of VoiceStream and Western Wireless, speaking at last week's National Telecommunications and Information Administration Spectrum Management and Policy Summit, acknowledged the controversy surrounding the FCC waiver, but pointed out that the mission it serves — to aid first responders during emergencies — is indisputable. PAS, he added, should not be viewed as a "substitute" for other emergency communications needs, but a "supplement" to them.

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