One way to improve the nation’s wireless
emergency alerting system is to boost the technology behind the alerts. What
better way than installing FM chips in our smartphones?
That was the question posed by Commissioner Jessica
Rosenworcel during the Federal Communications
Commission’s November open meeting, which tackled several issues
including steps to improve the usefulness of the nation’s wireless
emergency alert (WEA) system.
“Just last week, we had a cruel reminder
that when the unthinkable occurs, our security so often depends on
connectivity,” Rosenworcel said in reference to the terrorist attacks
in Paris on Nov. 13. “So the policies we have for wireless emergency
alerts deserve an update. They need to be refreshed to reflect our reliance on
mobile devices and their unique ability to keep us informed when disaster
At the meeting, the FCC issued a notice of proposed
rulemaking to improve the usefulness of the WEA through three main proposals:
to allow WEA messages to be longer than 90 characters to allow for the additon
of phone numbers, URLs, multimedia and multilingual content; to improve the
geotargeting of wireless emergency alerts so that WEA alerts can be more
localized; and to allow for local WEA system testing.
“This rulemaking is real progress,”
Rosenworcel said. “But I also hope progress continues on other
fronts. Because we can strengthen our security even further by having active FM
chips in our smartphones.
“There are market developments right now that are making these chips
more available, and we should encourage these industry discussions to
continue,” she said. AT&T and T-Mobile
recently announced that they would activate radio
chips on their Android devices; carrier Sprint began the practice in 2013.
The National Association of Broadcasters agreed, saying
radio-enabled mobile devices can play a large role in
disseminating key information during an emergency. “We look forward
to voluntary activation of radio chips in all smartphones,” said
Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for
While all four commissioners and the chairman voted to
approve the NPRM, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly questioned whether
changes should be made to a system that seems to be working relatively well.
“In certain circumstances, these simple timely
notifications can be critical or even life saving to those who receive
them,” O’Rielly said. “On the other hand, too
many notifications or ill-timed ones can promote consumer distrust and make the
overall system less viable.”
Appropriately, he said, the notice initiates debate on proposed changes to the
current mechanisms. “In doing so, we need to keep in mind that there
is a delicate balance between the obligations asked of participating wireless
providers and their willingness to remain part of the voluntary system. It will
be extremely counterproductive if any proposed changes led to a decrease in the
number of participating wireless providers.”
All in all, however, the commissioners and chairman
praised the work of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security
bureau for bringing the issue to the forefront.
“This notice puts our country on a path to
improve the effectiveness of the WEA system for public safety officials and the
citizens they serve,” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said during the