Turning a New Page At Homeland Security

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By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, December 8, 2005

V ince Kelly is spending a lot of time lately trying to convince officials at the Homeland Security Department that he's got the solution, or at least part of it, to their emergency communication problems.

Kelly, chief executive of Alexandria-based USA Mobility Inc ., has been lobbying tech officials at the agency, telling them that his firm's technology is quick, portable, cheap, and is more likely than the cellular phone system to stay on air during a bad storm or other catastrophe. The technology, by the way, is called a pager.

This week the 9/11 Commission gave the federal government a failing grade for not freeing up enough radio spectrum for first responders. Wireless networks went down during the recent hurricanes and debate has boiled up again about how best to connect police officers, ambulance drivers and government officials during major emergencies.

Kelly's company, which controls 61 percent of the nation's paging market, does not have any contract proposals pending with the government right now. But he insists that agencies like Homeland Security and the Treasury Department should consider pagers as a still viable technology as they begin evaluating multibillion-dollar emergency communications proposals from some of the country's major government contractors.

Developed in the 1960s, the old-fashioned pager may not be as versatile or cutting edge as a BlackBerry or Web-enabled camera phone, he concedes. But he also said that it's more reliable in a crisis, able to send short messages both ways, and could be a cost-efficient backup system after more advanced networks fail.

Pagers operate on a different network than cellular phones. Compared with the wireless system, Kelly said that paging transmitters are more abundant, usually higher off the ground, and broadcast a more powerful signal. When a message is being sent to a particular pager, the signal is relayed through multiple transmitters so that even if some are damaged, the message will likely still get through. The paging network was built with greater redundancy, Kelly said, partly because so many companies were competing in the market during its heyday in the 1990s.

"Pagers just work better over a big geographic footprint," Kelly says. "You can get a message in a bunker with a pager. A hurricane can go through and you'll get the message with a pager."

There are limitations -- and skeptics.

Messages sent by pager must be relatively short, compared with the prolific BlackBerry, for example, and the interaction is not nearly as fast as talking on the phone.

Officials in the cell phone industry, meanwhile, see little advantage in the device that was once a cutting edge accoutrement hanging from the belt of emergency officials, doctors and teenage poseurs.

Jim Gerace , a spokesman for Verizon Wireless , said his company's network is as reliable as that of any paging company.

"There are overlaps from cellular antenna to cellular antenna, so that if one of our antennas goes down, particularly in the city, that area is going to be served by another antenna," Gerace said.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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