Wireless priority system given a 'go'

FCC gives waiver to VoiceStream for launching a wireless priority access service for use during emergencies.

The Federal Communications Commission announced April 3 that it has granted a temporary waiver to VoiceStream that will enable the company and the government to launch a wireless priority access service (PAS) for use during emergencies.

Government officials have been pushing for such a system since wireless telephone networks were overwhelmed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

After a PAS deal with Verizon Wireless fell through late last year, VoiceStream Wireless will now provide that service, starting with a pilot program in New York City and Washington, D.C., scheduled to begin in May.

The pilot program, announced March 26, will ensure that mobile telephone 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 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 in a statement.

The FCC waiver, approved March 15 and announced April 3, was necessary for wireless telecommunications companies to develop and implement a short-term immediate solution in selected markets. The solution will provide wireless priority access during national emergencies without meeting the queuing and other requirements established in FCC rules.

Although the FCC did give VoiceStream the go-ahead, a couple of commissioners voiced concerns, including one who partially dissented from the formal opinion.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps agreed with the decision to grant VoiceStream a temporary waiver, saying that "protecting the public safety is a primary responsibility of the commission." But Copps said that customers have the right to know whether the PAS will reduce their ability to complete calls during 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 also 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 encouraged the wireless carriers to inform their customers when they have entered into such arrangements. "Responsible carriers typically inform their customers of such changes to their service and clearly indicate the limitations of any service they offer," he said.

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