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VoiceStream set to offer priority calls

Now that the FCC has waived certain rules, the wireless company can begin the United States' first pilot program to guarantee that cellular calls can get through during chaotic events.

VoiceStream Wireless can now begin the United States' first pilot program to guarantee that cellular calls from emergency workers can get through during chaotic events.

As previously reported, VoiceStream Wireless and the National Communications System had tentatively agreed to conduct a pilot program of so-called priority access services in Washington, D.C., and New York.

But their plans were stalled until the Federal Communications Commission could make a ruling on a related matter. The ruling, a waiver of certain FCC rules, was granted Wednesday, according to an FCC spokeswoman.

"The FCC has taken a major step in establishing nationwide wireless priority service that will meet national security and emergency preparedness communications needs for key government decision makers," said a spokesman for the National Communications System.

The FCC decision is a major step toward meeting the White House's demand after the events of Sept. 11 to provide an immediate way for emergency workers to communicate during times of crisis.

In the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, with most of the New York landline phone system in tatters, nearly every cellular network was filled to capacity, and millions of calls were blocked. Some of the highest-ranking federal officials couldn't make calls.

A few days after the attacks, the White House asked wireless carriers to make available in three months a priority access service in New York, Washington and Salt Lake City, for the Winter Olympics. But it has taken so long to create the service that Salt Lake City has been ruled out of the trial now that the Olympics has ended, NCS spokesman Steve Barrett said.

"This waiver will allow the National Communications System and VoiceStream to put a working priority-access system in place while a fully compliant system is constructed," FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said.

The FCC waived just one requirement--that all carriers offering priority access create a three-digit phone number, similar to *69, that emergency officials could dial to log into the system. That requirement was waived partly because of the technological difficulties VoiceStream cited, according to an FCC spokeswoman.

Barrett would not reveal how VoiceStream plans to augment its network to provide priority access, but he said the NCS hopes to have a system in place in New York and Washington by year's end.