Who should get cell phone call priority?

Emergency calls often overwhelm cell phone networks so the feds have proposed a way to give officials priority access. But David Coursey is not so sure that's a good idea.

COMMENTARY--When disaster strikes, who deserves top priority? A cell phone call from a police officer, a paramedic, firefighter, or other emergency response official at the scene? Or one from you--a civilian--in your efforts to reach family, friends, or co-workers?

Being close to emergency services--and a Red Cross disaster volunteer myself--I used to have a ready, black-or-white answer: The needs of the fire department or police need to take precedence. Their communications might literally mean life or death. And it's not like my call, or your call, is.

EXCEPT, OF COURSE, when they are. If it wasn't for calls to and from the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, there might have been many hundreds or even thousands more lives lost on the ground. And what value can be placed on those final calls from people inside the World Trade Center to loved ones they were destined to never see again? By comparison, is it possible some of the other calls--even those from police and firefighters on official business--could wait?

The reason I'm raising these questions is that, in the wake of the September atrocities, the federal government has been pushing cellular carriers to develop a system that would allow "official users" to enter a priority code that would allow their calls to break through cellular networks jammed by calls from the general public.

This is a real problem that's existed for as long as there's been cellular service. When something bad happens, zillions of cellular telephones converge on the scene. Every police car, ambulance, and fire engine seems to have at least one cellular device onboard. More arrive with the allied city workers, the utilities, media, and volunteers.

IF ONLY THOSE PHONES showed up at a disaster scene--where many will be used simultaneously--it would be enough to jam the cellular network. Add to them the number of people displaced from their homes, and the often thousands, if not more, anxious civilians, all calling loved ones just to check in, and you have the making of a real communications nightmare.

In this light, the idea of a "priority code" for official calls makes sense. Of course, government users already have access to communications the general public lacks--their official radio systems. Alas, these become overcrowded as well, sometimes even on a "normal" day.

The feds had asked Verizon, the nation's largest mobile telephone company, to have a priority calling system in place by Dec.10 to serve New York, Washington, and Salt Lake City, the site of the upcoming Winter Olympics.

However, after the plan became public, questions arose about the priority system's cost, who'd end up paying for it, and why the feds deserved such an accommodation, anyway. In response, Verizon last week said it won't provide priority access, but will instead beef up its network to support greater volumes, especially in the aftermath of emergency situations.

MAYBE CELLULAR CARRIERS really will beef up their networks and get more calls through during emergencies, though I doubt they can afford to build such excess capacity into their entire networks. After all--fortunately--most disasters are still an exception, rather than the rule. (Except perhaps in the East and Gulf Coast hurricane belts.) So it doesn't seem practical for carriers to be investing in capital expansion for such infrequent scenarios.

My guess is that the government will eventually prevail, and a priority calling system will be created--quietly, so as to avoid a second public outcry. Maybe this new system will extend to all the organizations that provide essential services at a disaster scene, on a tiered approach.

In that way--and I understood this functionality was built into the old analog cellular network--a fire chief's car phone would have higher priority than the Salvation Army Canteen or a news media vehicle, but all those would still outrank the handset of John Q. Public when standing in the digital queue to get a call through.

But there also needs to be a second plan of attack here. While the "official" wireless phone companies can build features to support "official" government and service-agency customers, there needs to be an "unofficial" response to the problems of overwhelmed cell phone networks. Fortunately, it doesn't require any investment, not one piece of new technology.

RATHER, IT'S A CASE of doing something by not doing something--in this case, by not making needless phone calls. Smart families (and companies) set up one contact point that the person in the disaster area calls to report their status. People outside the disaster then call this person--who is well away from the emergency and not subject to network congestion--to find out about relatives, friends, or co-workers inside the affected area.

This takes a little planning, but can bring tremendous piece of mind, as well as make room for everyone to make the calls they need. So, instead of making multiple calls, people inside the disaster call just one person outside. Those living outside don't even try to call in, but get information from the single point-of-contact that's been designated in advance.

That won't entirely solve the problem, but for people living in disaster-prone regions, like the West Coast, the tornado belt, and every major city, planning ahead is both good sense and--by reducing the load on our vital communications infrastructure--good citizenship.

Do you think emergency officials ought to get a priority code that would give them access to the cell phone networks over you or other civilians? Why or why not? TalkBack to me--and take my Quickpoll below.

Do you support efforts to give emergency officials priority access to the cell phone networks?
Yes. They're dealing with life and death situations.
No. In many cases, civilians are, too.


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