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Crisis calls get wireless right of way

T-Mobile give priority access to cell phone calls made by certain emergency service workers in an effort to avoid service interruptions like those suffered during the Sept. 11 attacks.

T-Mobile on Tuesday began giving priority access to cell phone calls made by emergency service workers in 15 different U.S. metropolitan areas.

The carrier is among the first to offer "wireless priority" to emergency workers, a move prompted by problems encountered during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. At the time, some of the highest-ranking U.S. officials couldn't use cell phones to coordinate recovery efforts because East Coast cell phone networks were either destroyed or overwhelmed by calls at the time.

Starting Tuesday, T-Mobile subscribers who are among the 50,000 emergency officials approved by the Defense Department's National Communications System (NCS) can dial *272 (the "star" key and 272) and be guaranteed a call over the next available telephone circuit, said NCS representative Steve Barrett.

The NCS was given the task by the Bush administration of making wireless priority a reality. Barrett said he expects AT&T Wireless, Nextel Communications and Cingular Wireless to begin offering wireless priority services "later this year."

Barrett could not provide a specific date, however, for when wireless priority would come from the nation's largest cell phone provider, Verizon Wireless, and the No. 4 carrier, Sprint PCS. He would say only that the two carriers are slated to offer wireless priority at a later date.

T-Mobile has been giving cell phone priority access since May 2002 to a limited number of emergency workers in Washington and New York City, the site of the most destructive of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The effort launched Tuesday extends priority to all workers in those cities and adds priority access for emergency workers in another 13 metropolitan areas, such as Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia, Barrett said. All of the areas included are on the East Coast.