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Attacks haven't boosted sales of cell phones

Congested wireless networks in New York City and Washington contrasted the roles cell phones played for victims of the attacks.

By LOUIS HAU, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2002


Congested wireless networks in New York City and Washington contrasted the roles cell phones played for victims of the attacks.

Cell phones played a supporting role in the drama of Sept. 11, as victims trapped in the World Trade Center and on hijacked airlines used them to make frantic calls to loved ones.

The portable phones also demonstrated their limitations, as cell phone systems in New York and Washington became bogged down by congestion that kept many calls from going through.

A year later, there's little evidence of a boom in consumers signing up for cell phones as a way to reach loved ones in a crisis. Experts say that's because so many people already have them.

"When you start hitting 50 percent penetration, growth is going to slow," said analyst Ken Hyers of In-Stat/MDR, a technology consulting company in Newton, Mass. "You have fewer new users out there."

But the experience of 9/11 has given impetus to efforts to make cell phones more useful for emergency workers and for users in distress.

Wireless traffic in New York City on Sept. 11 was 1,400 percent higher than regular peak traffic, while Washington experienced a 400 percent surge in traffic, according to Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a trade group.

The unprecedented congestion prevented many cell phone calls from going through. "When everybody reaches for their phones, the networks are simply not designed to handle that capacity," Larson said.

To prevent jammed wireless networks from hindering emergency rescue efforts, the federal government has put new emphasis on giving key emergency management and law enforcement priority to place calls when a wireless network is congested. Such a system is in place for regular "fixed-line" phones.

T-Mobile, formerly VoiceStream Wireless, has been running a pilot program in New York City and Washington since May that enables up to 5,000 emergency personnel in the two cities combined to have wireless priority status on its network.

The group is in talks with wireless carriers, including T-Mobile, to make the priority service nationwide, said Gary Amato, deputy chief of technologies and programs for the National Communications System, an interdepartmental federal advisory group.

It hopes to start rolling out the program at the end of this year but doesn't yet know when it will be available in all parts of the country, Amato said.

Under a nationwide system, selected personnel would obtain priority access to a wireless network by pressing the star key and a three-digit code. Emergency personnel wouldn't interrupt calls in progress nor would they be numerous enough to significantly worsen gridlock for average citizens in a crisis, according to Kathryn Condello, vice president of industry operations for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

"During an emergency situation, your lowered grade of service is marginally diminished," she said.

But funding for the necessary upgrades of wireless networks is in doubt. The Bush administration sought $73-million to fund expansion of a wireless priority access system. But during budget deliberations, the House of Representatives has cut the appropriation to about $37-million, while the Senate has cut it to about $20-million, Condello said.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to allow emergency personnel to pinpoint the location of 911 calls made from cell phones. Since 1998, the Federal Communications Commission has required wireless carriers to provide 911 emergency dispatchers with a caller's phone number and the location of the closest cell "site," or transmission tower. But in some cases, that puts police, fire or ambulance crews responding to an emergency within only a mile or so of the caller.

By 2005, all wireless handsets will have to provide 911 dispatchers with the location of a wireless caller to within 164 to 984 feet.

Experts on the wireless industry say there was an increase in the number of new wireless subscribers soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. Analyst Hyers said Sept. 11 led to "a perception change" of cell phones as being "less of an annoyance and more of an essential."

But the surge proved to be short-lived and failed to reverse a continued slowdown in subscriber growth rates.

According to data collected by In-Stat/MDR, the number of U.S. cell phone subscribers grew by 23.2 percent in 2000 and 21.4 percent in 2001, and is expected to grow by 14 percent in 2002 and 11.5 percent in 2003. U.S. subscribers are projected to reach 143.1-million by the end of this year.

"Wireless handsets are so affordable and already so widely recognized for their convenience and safety that I'm not so sure that 9/11 was a real eye-opener in that regard," said Todd Koffman, a telecommunications analyst for Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg.

-- Louis Hau can be reached at hau@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.

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