FCC Ups Alert Requirements: More Characters and Geo-Targeting

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fcc5Tower owners and carriers should keep an eye on the FCC’s efforts to update Wireless Emergency Alerts. One Commissioner believes the agency is saddling carriers with rules that are burdensome.

More than 21,000 Wireless Emergency Alerts have been sent since their inception in 2012, according to FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief David Simpson, retired Rear Admiral U.S.N. Speaking at the FCC’s open meeting Wednesday, Simpson called WEA messages a “proven, valuable tool for keeping communities safe.”

But they need updating, and that’s what the Commission voted to do. The two largest changes are: increasing the 90 character limit to 360 characters and geo-targeting the alerts.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said of WEA, “while it works, it can work better. Shame on us if there’s technology available and we don’t use it to make alerts better.”

Simpson said the commission envisioned the changes with 4G and LTE and beyond, with 5G, in mind. Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel discussed enhanced WEA capabilities with regard to 5G especially. 

That’s why the Commission will encourage carriers to implement geo-targeting WEA messages “as soon as practical,” said Simpson. The agency will also support carriers’ efforts to initiate alerts in Spanish.

A Further Notice seeks comment on embedded multimedia, including thumbnail-size images, and compliance time-frames. The agency seeks public input on enabling the inclusion of links and multimedia sent over the data channel with the messages.

The agency would permit carriers to begin implementing embedded links in WEA messages 30 days after Federal Register publication and require it within one year, according to Simpson. “We wanted to bring as much capability as we could as platform operators could support it,” Simpson told reporters after the vote.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly voted for the item overall but dissented in part, believing the FCC is placing a big burden on carriers. “Big announcements lead to big expectations, which leads to waivers, because technology lags behind the hype.”

Potentially requiring carriers to deliver an earthquake WEA within 3 minutes from the time the alert is originated by local authorities is not possible now and even emergency management agencies can’t move that fast, he said. Embedding URLs within messages may seem useful, but may exacerbate network congestion during an emergency, ignoring “what emergency managers and network operators have told us,” he said.

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