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Smarter Ways to Improve Emergency Alerts

Build more Weather Radio transmitters, underwrite weather receivers, improve WEA

Radio World’s “Guest Commentaries” section provides a platform for industry thought leaders and other readers to share their perspective on radio news, technological trends and more. If you’d like to contribute a commentary, or reply to an already published piece, send a submission to [email protected].

Groups representing deaf and hard-of-hearing people have asked the FCC to mandate that emergency alerts appear on wireless devices. They also recommended that streaming services like Netflix and Hulu carry them as well. The groups were commenting in an FCC’s inquiry into how to improve emergency alerting.

Dan Gunter is the owner and broadcast engineer of Alabama Broadcast Services. In this guest commentary, he shares his thoughts in reply to the article “Disability Groups: Streamers Should Carry Emergency Alerts.” 

I speak from a combination of perspectives: I am a broadcast engineer, I am a “cord-cutter” and I am classified as disabled, with a condition that most of the time severely limits my mobility and, in turn, my ability to work and realize income that I could if I didn’t suffer from a physically disabling condition.

Dan Gunter, owner and broadcast engineer of Alabama Broadcast Services and author of this guest commentary

Like many others who subscribe to streaming services, I watch little “over the air” television. When I do tune to any of the relatively local television stations, it is usually via streaming service using cellular or satellite-based internet streaming service, and that is rarely; when I do, their EAS alerts are usually included in and available via their online streams.

As for radio, I listen to local stations both at home and on the road. I have SiriusXM service but primarily listen to over-the-air FM and AM stations when traveling, so I have their EAS alerts available over the air. 

If I am aware of any potential severe weather nearby, I make it a point to stay “weather-aware” and listen to local over-the-air, broadcast media outlets.

Issues of concern

The technical logistics that would be required for streaming-based services to make EAS alerts available to subscribers — regardless of what virtual channel, network, application, etc. they might be tuned to — would require a lot of technical “rebuilding” and financial investment on the service providers’ end. 

It also could necessitate redesign of many of the physical devices and software from all the vendors involved in building their networks and services.

First, they would need a way of knowing each subscriber’s location at any moment. That would be “guesswork” much of the time, since cell- and satellite-based internet service is likely to erroneously pinpoint a subscriber’s geographic location (based on their assigned IP address); it could be one or more states away from their actual location. 

Most subscribers to YouTubeTV, as an example, have had to deal with the headache where YouTubeTV asks the subscriber — who is tuning in from their home, which has not jumped up and relocated itself to another location — whether they are “just visiting” or whether they have moved. The service continues to warn the subscriber that their local affiliates are not available at the time because they are out of their home market. 

This occurs because their ISP has dynamically changed their IP address or for some other reason the location of their IP address now appears to YouTubeTV be in a different location, often far from their stationary home.

One can only imagine the havoc such errors in IP address location could cause: A subscriber whose IP address appears to be in a different state would likely end up getting misleading or irrelevant severe weather alerts, Amber alerts, etc., potentially causing confusion or unnecessary panic and stress.

Wiser approach

A better solution is to continue expanding and improving the geographically targeted Wireless Emergency Alerts system incorporated into all modern cell phones.

Also, more investment should be made in improving the number and quality of NOAA Weather Radio transmitters across the United States. 

While the vast majority of people are within range of a NOAA Weather Radio transmitter with ample signal strength to provide reliable signals to inexpensive NOAA Weather/All-Hazards type radios, expanding the network for higher density coverage would be a good investment. 

Follow that up with improvements in that network such that all types of alerts (severe weather, Amber, local law enforcement, national or presidential, etc.) are included and geographically targeted for the applicable NOAA transmitters. The system would be even better — and I contend it is already light years better than anything we had just a few decades ago.

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I suspect that the majority of disabled (including income-limited) persons own a working cell phone, thanks in part to government programs that help make them affordable (if not free) to low-income individuals.

As for NOAA Weather Radio/All-Hazards alert receiver radios, these have long been available at a one-time investment of $50, often much less when retailers offer promotions. 

Being an avid weather enthusiast, SkyWarn area coordinator and former public safety professional, I am adamant that NO home, place of business, school, church or any place where people are present should be without at least one of these inexpensive, potentially life-saving radios. 

I keep at least two at separate locations in my home so that we can hear an alert anywhere in our residence at any time. 

If I can afford some sort of internet service plus subscriptions to Netflix, YouTubeTV, Hulu and other streaming services along with cell service, I should be able to justify spending $49 or less for a good NOAA Weather receiver/radio that requires no ongoing subscription fees, and only the cost of keeping fresh batteries in it to cover power outages.

Mandating that streaming services be forced to work with all the other players in the EAS system to devise an entirely new and complex system for including EAS alerts would be far more expensive to develop and deploy, and extremely less reliable in terms of “geographic targeting” and accuracy for subscribers.

On the flip side of this record, the best solution in terms of public safety and reliability would consist of ongoing (if not greatly increased) investment in further expanding the existing cell-based, WEA and NOAA transmitter coverage and alert inclusion. 

Personal investment

We broadcast engineers are well aware of the significant advancements and improvements that have been made in EAS alerting, which radio and television stations have had no choice but to invest in and implement over just the past couple of years. We play an ongoing role in assisting to help stations stay legally compliant and support public safety and service.

Forcing streaming services to include EAS alerts could cost billions of government dollars promulgating new rules and legislation and funding the FCC and other agencies to make sweeping technological changes.

A more reliable and better improvement in public safety would be for the government to spend the money to make a free, good NOAA Weather receiver available to every household in the U.S.

We engineers can’t help putting a lot of thought into such matters; we also like to know that we ourselves can count on receiving alerts when we might be affected by weather or other hazardous situations. That’s all the more incentive for us to work hard in assisting clients in making sure their EAS equipment is reliable and functioning so that it will do its job if and when an alert is issued.