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WASHINGTON-The federal government is “poised and waiting to begin a pilot program” of cellular priority access for emergency personnel, the Clinton administration’s senior telecom official recently told the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC should not delay further approving the Cellular Priority Access Service, or CPAS, program, said Larry Irving, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The National Communications System (NCS) asked for the program almost three years ago.

Notwithstanding the Clinton administration request, it appears that it will be at least fall before the FCC acts on CPAS, government officials said. CPAS has been included in the FCC’s Public Safety Wireless Access Committee (PSWAC) docket, which is designed to determine public-safety needs.

The FCC is slated to issues rules on PSWAC-related items in September, but government officials do not believe CPAS will be included with those rules.

CPAS originally was submitted as a 1995 petition by the Department of Defense as a system that would give emergency personnel a clear channel when public-safety channels are congested. The proposal has since been expanded to include all CMRS, although it still is referred to as CPAS in government circles.

The decision to combine CPAS with PSWAC was not well-received. The DOD was opposed to the combination because it was felt the FCC could have acted on the petition separately from PSWAC. DOD would have preferred action on CPAS before other more long range plans for public safety were released, a DOD official said.

The letter to FCC Chairman William Kennard comes on the heels of an April 30 meeting between Kennard, FCC Commissioner Michael Powell and Lt. Gen. David Kelley, NCS manager.

There is a perceived demand for some sort of relief for emergency personnel trying to access the wireless network. The perception stems from horror stories of emergency personnel not being able to get onto the wireless network during a crisis. The congestion on the network is caused by wireless customers either calling 911 to report the incident, or, in the case of rush hour automobile accidents, wireless customers calling home to say they are stuck in traffic.

Indeed, Irving’s letter mentioned several famous disasters. “After the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the public was asked to stop using cellular phones because local response teams were having difficulty communicating because of congestion in cellular frequencies,” Irving said.

CPAS would be administered by NCS. If public-safety frequencies were tied up during an emergency, personnel with “first-response” duties would be given special codes on wireless phones to allow them access to the network. NCS would administer the system to verify that the personnel who received the special codes were personnel with first-response duties. When the emergency personnel used the phone during a rescue situation, they would be placed in a queue to get the next available channel. No one would be kicked off a telephone call, a DOD official said.

CPAS is not popular with the wireless industry because it could be costly to implement. “Obviously (wireless priority access) presents problems for us, especially if it is knocking everybody else off the system. Increased channels for emergency personnel could knock other users off. As a practical matter, no one wants to knock customers off, but depending on the scheme that is set up, that could happen,” said Tim Ayers, vice president for communications for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

Other objections to the proposal are technological. For example, channel queuing won’t work with analog networks. Public-safety personnel interested in using priority access would have to use digital equipment.

Irving chairs the Federal Wireless Policy Committee (FWPC), which encourages private government users to migrate those systems to free up that spectrum for other uses. “Many federal agencies represented on the FWPC consider priority access as a critical feature that needs to be in place before they can expect to use commercial wireless systems in support of public safety and in emergencies,” Irving said.

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