— Government agencies and their private partners say that, although there are complications in the rollout of the improved Emergency Alert System, all elements of their plan appear to be moving forward.
NAB's Kelly Williams, left, testifies while FEMA's Wade Witmer listens. Photos courtesy FCC For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency expects lab tests at Eastern Kentucky University — to make sure EAS equipment conforms to the Common Alerting Protocol — to begin late this summer.
However, broadcasters are asking many questions that are yet unanswered.
Among them: When will the Federal Emergency Management Agency accept a final standard for the Common Alerting Protocol? Will a planned national test of legacy EAS in the first quarter of 2011 reveal unforeseen problems? Will broadcasters receive any kind of financial assistance for any mandated EAS equipment they'll have to purchase? Will the 180-day clock for broadcasters to possess CAP capable equipment be extended?
Stakeholders in the enhanced EAS say they continue to press forward despite numerous formidable technical obstacles.
In June, the Federal Communications Commission, FEMA and the National Weather Service hosted a workshop in Washington called "21st Century Emergency Alerting: Leveraging Multiple Technologies to Bring Alerts and Warnings to the Public."
The purpose was to gather feedback on outstanding issues related to enhanced EAS and to identify any potential obstacles.
IP and broadband technologies increasingly are playing larger roles in public warning, said Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.
"Broadband, broadcast, cable, satellite, wireless and wire-line phones, the Internet, e-mail and social networking sites are all capable of playing a role. How we get there is the question," Barnett said at the workshop.
The FCC continues to evaluate updates to its Part 11 rules to allow for the full implementation of CAP v1.2. The agency is now reviewing public comments on proposed changes necessitated by CAP, as RW has reported.
CAP will become the standard for FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System; IPAWS will become the framework for aggregating and disseminating messages for the enhanced EAS.
A number of changes will be coming to Part 11, FCC officials say, including a mandate for the class of alerts known as "Governor's Must Carry," which will be generated by state agencies. FEMA has acknowledged it is making recommendations to the FCC on rule changes to exploit broadband and broadcast warning capabilities.
FEMA, which is ready to adopt CAP v1.2 formally by this fall, has said it continues to work on developing solutions for a broad-based warning system that can target specific geographic locations and deliver warning in multiple languages.
"We are living in an applications-based world and we have many companies in the private sector right now working on potential applications for CAP and EAS," said Damon Penn, assistant administrator for National Continuity Programs Directorate at FEMA.
Penn said the test lab at Eastern Kentucky University, contracted by his agency, is functional and ready to perform conformance testing on manufacturers' CAP equipment once FEMA gets formal approval from the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. At press time, the agency was hoping this approval would happen in July.
However, "Many compatibility issues are yet to be settled. We expect initial aggregator, infrastructure and final integration testing of the CAP standard by the FEMA data center to be brought online over the next several months," said Wade Witmer, deputy division director for FEMA's IPAWS program.
"This will include the beginning of the gateway functionality and how to push messages out through the system. The first building block is being put in place."
The EAS-CAP Industry Group, or ECIG, has released a CAP-to-EAS Implementation Guide (www.eas-cap.org).
After FEMA adopts CAP, broadcasters will have 180 days to purchase equipment or update current equipment so that they can accept alerts in the CAP format. That countdown to CAP compliance remains an issue.
Kelly Williams, senior director of engineering and technology policy for NAB, said at the workshop the consensus among planners is that 180 days is not enough time.
"We need a more realistic trigger. It seems that 180 days will barely be enough time to get product to market," he said.
One equipment manufacturer believes it doesn't matter how many days broadcasters are allowed to reach CAP compliance since they will likely procrastinate and wait until the end of the mandate period to order their new EAS equipment.
"Broadcasters won't likely take action until the last possible moment," said Harold Price, co-founder of Sage Alerting Systems, who attended the workshop and asked questions of the panelists. "No one is going to build anything until we start getting orders and that won't happen until FEMA adopts the CAP standard."
FEMA will launch the IPAWS program, with CAP as the protocol, sometime after the 180 day clock passes for broadcaster compliance, FEMA officials said.
NAB's Williams said there are 27,000 EAS participants and approximately eight EAS equipment manufacturers. Not all participants would have to purchase new equipment, he said, because several EAS equipment makers have been shipping CAP-compliant gear since late 2008. In some cases those newer encoders/decoders will be able to receive downloadable software updates.
He did warn broadcasters to move carefully when purchasing new EAS encoders and decoders until FEMA adopts the final CAP standard.
"History is replete with examples of companies who have started selling equipment before a standard is set and then things get changed when finalized," Williams said.
Harold Price of Sage Alerting Systems, left, asks a question during the emergency alerting workshop. Arguing against a delayed clock, Price told RW: 'Broadcasters won't likely take action until the last possible moment.' Meanwhile, the FCC continues to move ahead on the Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS), which will use cell telephone companies to route and collect mobile alerts. CMAS could be ready for testing by early 2012, and EAS experts expect it eventually will become an integral part of the enhanced EAS.
Network congestion of cell networks and hard-wire phone networks during emergencies remains a concern, said Brian Daly, director of core and government regulatory standards for AT&T Mobility Services, who was also on the workshop panel.
"The explosion of data we are seeing over wireless is very demanding, and then you add in an emergency and data transfer will bog down," Daly said. "That is why we stressed broadcast capability in legacy 2G and 3G and introduced it in LTE." Long-Term Evolution is a new 4G wireless mobile data network technology that is competing with WiMax.
A national test of legacy EAS capabilities is expected to take place in early 2011. Results from a statewide test of existing EAS in Alaska last January has moved some EAS equipment manufacturers to call for a pre-test before a national test; several manufacturers discovered program errors in their EAS encoders/decoders.
EAS planners also worry about the effects of overuse of an enhanced EAS as more messaging platforms come to market.
Art Botterell, a public warning consultant and CAP standards architect, expressed concern at the meeting that people would become desensitized by being bombarded by messages and their irrelevance over time. "We must keep public alerts relevant."
Broadcast engineers have said anecdotally the weakest link in the current EAS is relying on DJs with the daisy-chain distribution method of monitoring, alerting and testing for broadcasters.
With CAP-enabled EAS, the web of station-to-station alerts will still exist, say experts, who point to the versatility of CAP-enhanced EAS and new redundancy from fresh elements like wireless broadband and CMAS.