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NTIA asks FCC to update Wireless Priority Service

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NTIA asks FCC to update Wireless Priority Service

NTIA requests that FCC initiate a new rulemaking on WPS

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has asked the Federal Communications Commission to update the rules on Wireless Priority Service, which enables wireless calls from designated national security personnel and first responders to get through in times of network congestion on commercial carrier networks.

NTIA filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC and said that the request is on behalf of the Office of
Emergency Communications of the Department of Homeland Security.

“Although WPS has evolved considerably since its creation under the [Priority Access Service] name in 2000, the rules governing the service have not changed since they were initially issued,” NTIA said in its filing. 

Development of the PAS was requested by National Communications System in 1995 and in July 2000, the FCC decided that commercial mobile network operators should be able to voluntarily offer the service. The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks brought new urgency to the ability for emergency responders and law enforcement to have access to reliable cellular communications during network congestion, and WPS/PAS rules were developed shortly thereafter so that carriers could begin offering it. The service is most commonly known as WPS.

“‘Priority access’ meant that authorized NS/EP personnel could seize the next available wireless
channel for emergency communications when the network is congested, although priority calls
could not preempt other calls in progress,” NTIA explained — which meant that even with WPS authorization, first responders often still ran into trouble getting their devices onto congested networks in an emergency.

Having WPS authorization has typically meant an additional service charge for authorized users; according to the FCC, charges include an activation of $10 per device, a monthly service fee of $4.50 and per-minute charges of up to $0.75. Both Verizon and AT&T (partnered with FirstNet) have stopped charging the extra fees for priority access.

The ability to preempt most regular users, particularly non-911 calls, was one of the top desires of public safety users as the FirstNet network requirements were developed, and AT&T has emphasized its preemption capabilities for FirstNet users since launching them late last year. NTIA’s request includes asking for limited preemption capabilities for WPS: some “high-priority WPS users” would be able to preempt non-911 calls.

While WPS has evolved over time to address new technologies and standards, NTIA said, “the dramatic growth in wireless devices and the number of wireless subscribers, and the changing communications
needs of [National SecurityS/Emergency Preparedness] users since that time necessitate changes to the operating protocols for priority wireless communications adopted 17 years ago.”

“Many of the changes requested by this petition are administrative in nature – for example, to reflect shifts in the identity and/or responsibilities of the Federal agencies that oversee NS/EP communications, to address the need of more NS/EP-related entities and personnel for access to priority communications, and to recognize that priority today applies not only to network access but also to a communication’s path from end-to-end,” NTIA said in summarizing its request. “Other changes are more substantive, such as allowing a limited set of NS/EP communications to preempt non-911 communications, and affording NS/EP users multiple ways to invoke priority treatment. Finally, we request that the Commission take steps, as it did in 2000, to remove or mitigate legal uncertainties that may inhibit CMRS providers’ willingness to make the full range of their voice, data, and video telecommunications and information services available to NS/EP personnel on a priority basis.”

NTIA outlined its requested changes as follows:

  • Permit WPS voice calls for a small subset of high-priority WPS users, if needed, to preempt or degrade in-progress, non-911 calls
  • Extend priority services to include data, text, and video services
  • Require WPS providers and users to provide DHS with performance data in order to evaluate program effectiveness
  • Modify the rules to reflect authorities, agencies and requirements that were not in existence at the time the rules were approved
  • Reflect current capabilities such as end-to-end priority, new methods of invoking priority; and refine the rules used to approve and categorize the WPS user base.
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Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr