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This AT&T proposal would end the president’s ability to make priority phone calls in a crisis

The Midland Beach section on Staten Island's south shore was among the areas hit by Hurricane Sandy in November 2012. (Reuters/Mike Segar)
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The Department of Homeland Security says an AT&T plan to test new network technology would degrade a special telephone service reserved for national emergencies and presidential communications.

If implemented, the plan would hamper the ability of first responders and public officials to respond to a crisis of the magnitude of Hurricane Sandy or even 9/11, according to DHS.

The special service, known as the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), allows the president or any high-level official with a secret PIN to dial a unique phone number and demand priority access to the nation's telephone network. GETS calls automatically take precedence over all other phone traffic, and can even overcome busy tones that an ordinary caller might face during periods of congestion. About one-tenth of one percent of people in the United States have access to this system — and AT&T is proposing to strip that priority status from a key stage of the calls.

"If you're not applying priority to the end-to-end call, then it's a straightforward position to say you're putting GETS at risk," said Jason Healey, a security expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council and a former George W. Bush administration official who oversaw the GETS program.

U.S. telecom operators are shifting away from their old, copper networks in favor of high-speed fiber optic cables. This transition will effectively turn every phone call into a piece of data, enabling new technologies, such as high-definition voice and video calls and enhanced 911 services. AT&T is conducting field trials of the technology in two towns in Florida and Alabama, in part to help federal regulators determine what rules to apply to telecom companies as the transition continues.

AT&T's current proposal would absolve the company of having to grant GETS calls priority status, says DHS. That would force GETS calls to compete with other local calls in a crisis. The change could make it harder for officials to communicate when severe weather or a terrorist attack causes a flood of network traffic. According to a DHS presentation, 10,000 GETS calls were placed on 9/11, with 95 percent of those calls getting through. In 2005 — the year Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast — 45,000 calls were placed with GETS or WPS, the cell phone equivalent of GETS, and solid majorities of those calls were completed.

Programming the new, fiber-based network to recognize priority calls — which would otherwise be indistinguishable from other data — would help homeland security officials, but it would take some work. "All the Internet knows how to do is pass things from point A to point B," said Healey. "So if there's a denial-of-service attack, and VoIP was significantly throttled back, the Internet itself would not know that this is the president's VoIP call trying to get through."

In a statement, AT&T said it was cooperating on a solution to priority calls.

"AT&T agrees fully with DHS that first responders and GETS systems users need priority access at all stages of a telephone call and we are working with DHS and within industry to make it a reality," the company said. "We look forward to working with DHS to deploy exactly the kind of communications networks they need."