Wireless Priority Service expanding to new areas, carriers

The National Communications System is expanding its Wireless Priority Service to include new cellular carriers and new technologies.

Only one cellular carrier, T-Mobile USA Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., currently provides the priority service to government and key private-sector personnel. NCS, now a part of the Homeland Security Department, said T-Mobile is expected to have full operating capability for WPS available throughout most of the country this summer.

The program's integration contractor, Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., recently signed contracts with Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications Inc. for WPS service, and is in negotiations with AT&T Wireless.

All of these carriers use the Global System for Mobile Communications standard. CSC recently received a $200 million contract modification from NCS to extend WPS capability to Code Division Multiple Access technology used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS.

WPS is the wireless equivalent of the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, which provides priority access to wireline telephone service during emergencies. With WPS, authorized federal, state and local officials and key private-sector officials can be put first in line for an open cellular channel by dialing *272 before entering the number being called.

NCS focused on providing WPS on GSM first because four of six major carriers used the technology, said John Graves, WPS and GETS program director. T-Mobile began offering initial operating capability in New York and Washington in the spring of 2002 and had deployed it throughout its network the following year.

Full operating capability had to await development of software by switch manufacturers. The software now is available from the first manufacturers and installation is beginning across the T-Mobile network.

It will take some time before other GSM carriers roll out WPS technology. NCS recently received funding for the CDMA program.

'Our experience with GSM will serve us well and we should have an initial CDMA by the end of 2005 or early 2006,' Graves said.

Last summer's Northeast blackout provided the first test for WPS. Although the system worked, it does have limitations. It can put a caller first in line for cellular service, but it cannot ensure that service will be available. In the initial hours of the blackout, when cell towers were running on auxiliary power, the service worked fine for T-Mobile users. But as cell tower batteries ran down, service was unavailable to anyone.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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