A cell-phone service that is supposed to grant priority to emergency government and public-safety calls failed during the August earthquake that rocked the East Coast, a Homeland Security Department official said on Monday.
The Wireless Priority Service, a voice feature that does not require a special cell phone, was overwhelmed by text-messaging traffic in the aftermath of the 5.8 magnitude shaker on Aug. 23, said Allen F. Woodhouse, acting director of the DHS National Communications System. It is widely acknowledged that many Americans were unable to make personal calls for several minutes after the earthquake. Only key federal and municipal workers, as well as essential public-health and -safety personnel, are eligible to subscribe to the 75 cents-per-minute service.
"We did not have priority on the signal channel," Woodhouse told Nextgov during an event in Arlington, Va., sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association of Washington. The service is a separate call-routing system that carriers implement through software enhancements to cellular networks in their coverage areas.
"All of the texting and short messaging occurred on the signal channel," he said during the event. "WPS is designed to get through congestion in those situations. WPS could not get through that."
Homeland Security officials are working with carriers to modify their circuitry by the time of the Republican and Democratic national conventions in late summer, Woodhouse said. "That is a significant requirement that we must have," he said. Woodhouse told Nextgov that Alcatel-Lucent's hardware should be fixed by Christmas.
Homeland Security manages the program, while the Federal Communications Commission sets the rules and policies. According to the FCC website, the service is intended to increase the likelihood that calls will go through by 90 percent, even with congestion.