C SpireC Spire Wireless’s new promotion for Wireless Priority Service (WPS), announced yesterday, calls attention to an important emergency service with which some of us may not have been familiar.

“Wireless Priority Service was developed for carriers to allow first responders . . . during a terrorist attack or disaster to have access to priority calling,” explained Terrell Knight, vice president of government and economic development for C Spire, in an interview.

Wireless networks typically get very heavy traffic during major emergencies as wireless users attempt to get in touch with friends and family. Sometimes networks become so congested that people are unable to place voice calls.

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When that occurs, WPS puts emergency responders first in line to place a call whenever capacity is freed up because calls have been completed. WPS doesn’t interrupt calls in progress, Knight explained.

How Wireless Priority Service Works
To use WPS, first responders such as fire fighters, police, emergency medical personnel and others must first gain authorization from the Department of Homeland Security.

When the required authorization has been obtained, a first responder can sign up for WPS service from C Spire or another carrier. According to Knight, most major carriers offer WPS service, which was defined by government officials. And WPS doesn’t require a special phone, he said, which means first responders typically can sign up for service with their existing carrier. That’s important, considering that first responders sometimes have to supply their own equipment, particularly in rural areas such as a large part of C Spire’s serving area.

C Spire originally launched WPS in 2009. Previously the company charged a $10 one-time activation fee and a monthly service fee of up to $4.50 per line, in addition to a 75 cent per minute usage charge.

The new C Spire promotion waives both the one-time activation fee and the monthly service fee for WPS for authorized first responders.

As Knight explained, the usage charge was put in place to help prevent abuse of the system. That now will be the only fee first responders will pay to use WPS.

C Spire put the new pricing in place in preparation for the upcoming hurricane season.

To use WPS, first responders dial *272 prior to dialing the phone number they are calling.

To support WPS, C Spire had to re-configure six switches underlying its wireless network, Knight explained. The service went through substantial testing before it was launched.

C Spire now has historical data for several years of WPS service and according to Knight, the maximum amount of wait time that first responders encounter after dialing *272 and a phone number is generally no longer than 45 seconds.

Although first responders may have walkie-talkies for communications with one another, they often need to use cellular service to reach first responders in other communities or people who are not first responders, Knight explained.

I asked Knight if something akin to WPS is in the works for mobile data, but he said that is a difficult undertaking and there are no specific plans for such an offering at this time.

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