Keeping Wireless Safe from Security

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The negotiating skills Steve Berry developed as a seasoned beltway insider were tested immediately after he joined the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1997. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) had been signed into law three years earlier, and there was still a great deal of concern over the demands that legislation would place upon the wireless sector.

Berry was given the task of protecting the industry's interests and finding common ground between what the federal government sought and what wireless carriers reasonably could deliver.

His mission was two-fold: First was educating the FBI, FCC and the National Security Agency about the distinctiveness of the wireless industry. Second was convincing them that phasing CALEA-centric technologies into wireless networks - which typically are upgraded in nine- to-18 month cycles - would be more cost-effective and ultimately result in better solutions than rushing new technologies into deployment.

It wasn't easy. "We had a hell of a time convincing the FBI they didn't know their butt from a hole in the ground," Berry said. "They kept saying, 'We want our solution and we want it now.'"

History seems poised to repeat itself with the Homeland Security Act. Berry is still trying to figure out what the ramifications are for the wireless industry, but he's certain that priority access will be at the top of the list. Priority access would place at the top of each carrier's network queue those calls that emanate from members of Congress, the executive branch, the judiciary, key agencies such as the FBI, FEMA and the Department of Justice, as well as first responders such as local police and fire personnel.

The government and wireless carriers had priority access on their radar screens well before Sept. 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks made it even more of a priority. The obligation is making wireless carriers nervous because they fear priority access might trigger unexpected results, such as a disruption of 911 calls coming from regular wireless handset users.

As a group, the nation's wireless carriers are relying in large measure on Berry to guide them through whatever processes emerge - and to protect their interests. As the person who heads up CTIA's lobbying efforts, Berry is in position to do just that. More important, he has the pedigree and experience to get the job done.

Berry has been working in Washington for nearly three decades. He first arrived in the nation's capital to attend George Mason Law School, after which he spent more than 18 years working for the federal government, first as a Senate aide and in senior-level positions like chief of staff for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, assistant secretary of legislative affairs at the State Department, and chief council of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Immediately prior to joining CTIA, Berry spent two years as a partner in a D.C. law firm handling its government practice.

Joining the CTIA was somewhat of a coincidence born of necessity. "Quite frankly, I was looking for a new client," he said. "I have a good friend here who I had served with at the State Department for four years, and she said CTIA needed somebody to run their congressional shop."

One of the myriad responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security created by the act is to secure the nation's critical infrastructures, which includes telecom networks. The department also is charged with creating "comprehensive programs" for developing interoperable communications technologies that would be placed in the hands of emergency first responders, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was also was given powers that could be used to compel private entities to divulge information about their customers such as wireless e-mail.

At this point, wireless carriers aren't sure what the law specifically means to them. The original version drafted by the Senate was "relatively limited," according to a Sprint spokesman. But the version that ultimately got passed was considerably different and more complicated, and it came so late in the session that the carriers were caught somewhat by surprise.

"Suddenly the House came in with their version, which was several hundred pages, and included all kinds of stuff that erupted very quickly and was passed very quickly," the Sprint spokesman said. "Our folks are still trying to go through it and figure out what the implications are."

There is a lot at stake, depending on what the government asks the industry to do, and how soon it asks them to do it.

"This will have a short-term effect on EBITDA if they have to spend tens of millions of dollars to comply," said Andrew Cole, head of the wireless practice for Adventis.

As they did with CALEA, wireless carriers are turning to the CTIA and Berry, who said he's going to go through the education process all over again.

"The people who are designing wireless priority access are beginning to understand that wireless is different, but they really don't understand wireless," Berry said. "We have been so good at emulating wireline that people forget that this is a radio, with certain engineering and physics limitations."

Complicating matters is that more than 26 federal agencies, including FEMA and the FBI, are being reassigned to the Homeland Security department. "We need to figure out exactly who we have to interface with and who's in charge," Berry said.

The end goal concerning priority access is to develop a national policy, he said, something that won't be easy because the individual states will want to superimpose their own guidelines - or worse.

"California, for instance, wants their own system," Berry said. "The network can't operate that way. Somebody has to be in control of prioritizing those needs. But that doesn't mean states that need wireless priority access won't be able to get it. It just means that somebody else has to be the gatekeeper."

The CTIA, represented by Berry, meets regularly with the National Communications System, which consists of 23 federal agencies, and heads up the wireless subcommittee of the FCC's Network Reliability and Interoperability Council. The association, therefore, is well positioned to drive home a national policy, and such a policy is an imperative, Berry said.

"We're getting close to the time where the more demands that the government makes of us, the more likely it is that we should have some national standards."

-DSI Staff

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