House Committee Raises Standards For Emergency Alerting

If an event like last year’s shooting in an Orlando nightclub happens again, and you’re there, your cell phone may display an alert that says: “There’s a shooter in the nightclub. Police are coming in. Duck!” Christopher Guttman-McCabe, CEO of CGM Advisors gave that example to lawmakers yesterday during a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on emergency alerting.

The wireless industry is preparing to incorporate more features in Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) — both for 4G and the upcoming 5G world. The feasibility of sending two separate messages within a distinct cell tower coverage area is being discussed, for example. “Think of it as two people on the same street ordering an Uber. The only limitation is the ability of the device to identify a location,” said Guttman-McCabe.

He and the other witnesses who testified are members of an FCC standards-setting group working to spell out for manufacturers device specs for WEA and EAS. WEA became operational in 2012. Wireless Emergency Alerts are broadcast only to the cell towers in the coverage areas that best match the zone of an emergency. All WEA-capable phones that are in the coverage area of the cell towers in the alert zone will receive WEA.

Some 30,000 WEA messages have been sent, said Qualcomm Technologies DOE Dr. Farrokh Khatibi. He and Guttman-McCabe agreed more could be sent but some message originators are worried about sending so many alerts that the public ignores them. That’s a big reason the wireless industry is working on geo-targeting.

Many of the enhanced features being discussed like Spanish-language alerts and embedded URLs can potentially be accomplished as software upgrades to current devices, according to the experts, citing an AT&T statement in December. The FCC last fall voted on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to allow enhancements to WEA like expanding the number of characters in the text alert from 90 to 360 and requiring wireless providers to incorporate other upgrades.

Broadcasters want to enhance their Emergency Alerting System too. NAB CTO Sam Matheny testified about the next-gen TV standard that the association, along with the Consumer Technology Association, America’s Public Television Stations and the Advanced Warning and Response Network petitioned the FCC to authorize. A video shown during the hearing displayed what a gas leak warning could look like on a NextGen-capable TV including a list of impacted neighborhoods and a video-on-demand display with more information.

Matheny said the idea is to give the public actionable information; the alert could be targeted beyond an advanced television set, to the car, computers, and “any device that may have a NextGen TV tuner in it.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is targeting year-end to have rules enabled for broadcasters that want to voluntarily transmit in the new ATSC 3.0 standard. If that timeline holds, the industry hopes some television stations could begin simulcasting both the new standard and current TV transmission standard next year.

May 18, 2017

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