Emergency telecom programs gave responders access

Emergency telecom programs gave responders access

Priority services operated by the National Communications System gave government officials and emergency personnel access to both landline and wireless telecommunications during last week's blackout that shut down parts of the Northeast.

Although most of the telecommunications infrastructure remained in operation during the blackout, usage spikes overwhelmed resources, making access difficult for many calling to or from the affected areas Thursday evening and into Friday. That is the situation for which the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service was established for landline phones, and the Wireless Priority Service for cellular phones.

GETS is a nationwide program. On the cellular side, T-Mobile USA Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., is the only company to provide priority wireless access.

'Reports from T-Mobile indicate that Wireless Priority Service was operational and used across multiple switching centers in New York and Washington during the blackout,' GETS and WPS program director John Graves said. 'Wherever T-Mobile had power to base stations, we had WPS capability.'

GETS also worked, giving priority users access to the public-switched network.

NCS, formerly run by the Defense Department, now is part of the Homeland Security Department's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate.

Graves said his office is collecting data from T-Mobile on the number of calls attempted and completed through WPS.

Areas affected by the blackout where the priority service is available include Cleveland, Detroit, New York City and upstate New York.

WPS gives priority to calls by federal, state and local officials and industry first responders who dial a special prefix on the T-Mobile system. Routine calls are not dropped, but priority calls are moved to the head of the queue waiting for a channel on the nearest available cell.

Performance figures during the blackout have not yet been gathered, but NCS estimated WPS would give users a 95 percent chance of completing a call on a congested system.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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