Priority abscess

It was with great fanfare that the District of Columbia last week unveiled a new, underground first-responder wireless system stretching through subway tunnels that’s fully interoperable with an advanced public-safety radio network competed last fall.

The D.C. government, struggling to educate city kids otherwise occupied with dodging stray bullets from warring gangs, can at least boast of a first-class wireless system for police, firefighters and medics. D.C. officials also are lobbying Congress for a state-of-the-art broadband wireless system for first responders.

The nation’s capital remains a big target for terrorists. The 911 Commission hearings on what went wrong and what is being done to make it right are not reassuring.

But there’s more to it. “We need this capacity,” said Mayor Anthony Williams. “Transit is a prime target for terrorists.”

What about first responders and local, state and federal officials, who are dependent on T-Mobile USA Inc. mobile phones equipped with priority-access capability? Those officials are out of luck if disaster strikes down under. How about throngs of metro area commuters, some of whom travel daily on the subway? For many, cell phones become useless as they descend down escalators to subway trains. You are much better off being a Verizon Wireless customer or an owner a Smithsonian-ready analog phone that can roam on the Verizon network.

Verizon Wireless has a contract with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority dating back to the early 1990s. Whether the contract precludes other mobile-phone carriers from providing wireless service on the subway is open to debate.

According to sources and internal documents obtained by RCR Wireless News, the other five national carriers have been stonewalled by WMATA and have met resistance from Verizon in efforts to gain access to the subway system. John Johnson, a Verizon spokesman, said constructing an underground wireless system is difficult and “any and all carriers may do likewise.”

In a 2003 letter to T-Mobile, WMATA said it would not get involved in continuing negotiations between Verizon and T-Mobile.

But what about wireless priority access and the rest of us?

“This place is concerned with transit. That’s it,” Joe Zimmerman, assistant general counsel at WMATA, told me last week.

There appears a glimmer of hope for T-Mobile, Nextel Communications Inc., AT&T Wireless Services Inc., Cingular Wireless L.L.C. and Sprint PCS, which have joined forces in trying to secure subway access. But first they must pay Verizon $7.6 million to reimburse the carrier for a separate, public-safety network it built for WMATA while it was installing its own underground cell-phone links. Last Thursday, the five carriers agreed to do just that. But there’s still no guarantee the situation will improve.

Can WMATA, the D.C. government and the feds afford to continue sitting on the sidelines?

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