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DHS Fears Fiber-Based Telephone Services May Cost Them Priority

May 12, 2014

DHS Fears Fiber-Based Telephone Services May Cost Them Priority

By David Gutbezahl
TMCnet Contributing Writer

With shifts in technology leading to the eventual demise of copper based wire telephone services, AT&T (News - Alert) is making steps toward adopting high-speed fiber optic cables as the new form of telephone services. AT&T’s plan will turn all phone calls into pieces of data, which will enable new technologies along the lines of high definition voice and video calls. It is also claimed that they will enhance 911 services. As a major step toward implementation, AT&T is conducting field trials in two towns in Florida and Alabama.

New technology may be exciting, but there might be a major problem with the move over from the old wire telephone services to fiber-based networks. The Department of Homeland Security specifically is having a little difficulty with the idea, as it may cut out an important part of their emergency services.

With the change of technologies, a special service, known as the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), may find itself left in the dust. GETS is an important service that played a vital role in national crises like Hurricane Sandy and 9/11. With GETS service, high-level officials, including the President of the United States himself, are able to use a secret PIN to dial a number that will grant them priority access to the nations telephone network. Using GETS, these officials are able to place calls automatically, and bypass all other phone traffic.

GETS played a major role in past crises. In a DHS presentation, it was revealed that 10,000 calls were made through GETS on 9/11. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and left a trail of destruction, 45,000 calls were made through GETS and its cell phone equivalent, WPS.

One issue with the move to relying upon fiber-based services is that the telephone companies will not be under any obligation to work with GETS.

Even if the companies and the government are able to work out a deal, fiber-based services might not be able to provide government officials with a reliable service with the ability to have priority calling. Jason Healey, a security expert who oversaw the GETS program under George W. Bush’s administration warns, “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.”

Given time, and plenty of resources, programming can be made that will allow networks to give priority calling. At least for now, if there was a denial-of-service attack, causing difficulties with VOIP services, calls would be unlikely to receive priority, even if they were to come from the president.

AT&T made the following statement as a reassurance that they are dedicated toward implementing priority calling.

"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."

AT&T’s dedication to working with the government is likely part of the reason for its test studies in Florida and Alabama. These studies will allow them to judge and work with the government to ensure that future fiber-based networks are up to snuff with government needs and regulations.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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