Priority wireless access for military, emergency crews

The Bush administration's new Cyberspace Security Advisor, Richard Clarke, is pushing the cellular telecommunications industry to provide emergency personnel and top military and civilian leaders priority access to wireless networks.

This priority access system would allow designated military and civilian personnel, as well as state and local emergency crews, to grab cellular channels ahead of the general public in times of crisis.

Bedminster, N.J.-based Verizon Wireless said it's working to have a short-term wireless access system up and running in the Washington area within 60 days.

Clarke said that "in times of severe network congestion" -- as occurred in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. (see story) -- "call completion percentages can drop well below 5 percent. It is essential that we work with the industry to deploy priority access service for use in crisis situation as soon as possible."

Clarke said that he directed Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege and the National Communications System "to help in getting priority service deployed for cell phones as soon as possible."

The National Communications System is a consortium of federal agencies with its own internal network that is managed by the Pentagon's communications arm, the Defense Information Systems Agency, which Raduege commands.

While the cellular industry responded quickly to Clarke's request in general terms, carriers and analysts pointed out it will be a complex undertaking. "We understand the concern of the government that emergency communications get through," said James Fisher, a spokesman for Sprint PCS Group in Kansas City, Mo.

But, he added, "this is a complicated issue with all kinds of things that need to interact. We are looking at what the government is seeking and trying to understand the issues."

Peter Nilsson, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, said his company "supports efforts of the government to develop and implement wireless priority access."

That kind of support has been a long time coming, however, according to Federal Communications Commission records, which show that a number of unnamed carriers have claimed that they would have "to spend large amounts of capital to upgrade their systems." The agency began rule-making proceedings on the subject in 1995.

For example, in July of last year, Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems officials questioned whether "priority access is necessary," according to an FCC report. Bell Atlantic Mobile is now part of New York-based Verizon Wireless.

Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said that at that time, Verizon disagreed with the FCC's methodology. "We believe in priority access, but we want to do it in a way that offers us maximum flexibility to accomplish the end game," he said. "We are working with the government, including the White House, for a short-term solution, and expect to have a system up in Washington within 60 days."

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said that one of the key issues for the cellular industry is the cost of making changes to networks that would allow phones used by federal, state and local authorities to obtain access to channels ahead of the general public.

Priority access, like emergency location services, is also technical challenge for the industry, Mathias said, "but not an insurmountable one. It could probably be done in software."

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