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FCC Votes to Upgrade WEA

Increasing message length from 90 to 360 characters on 4G LTE networks

The Federal Communications Commission today pushed ahead with a plan to expand and improve the Wireless Emergency Alerts system in order to better target alerts sent to wireless phones in specific geographic areas.

The WEA Report and Order adopted today by commissioners will allow an increase in the maximum length of WEA messages from 90 to 360 characters for 4G LTE networks. Local and state authorities who send WEA alerts will now be able to include embedded phone numbers and URL links to improve message clarity. For example, AMBER alerts will now be able to include a link to a victim or possible suspect photo.

WEA is a public safety system that allows emergency officials to send text-like alerts to wireless phones and other enabled mobile devices within geographically-targeted areas. Alerts are sent only from cell towers whose coverage areas best match the zone of an emergency. Phones that are using the cell towers in the alert zone will receive the emergency message, FCC officials say.

Since its launch in 2012 more than 21,000 wireless emergency alerts have been sent to Americans warning of severe weather, active shooters, bombings and the search for missing children, says Rear Admiral David Simpson, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

“We now have the opportunity to leverage technological advancements and lessons learned to make WEA an even more effective public safety tool,” Simpson said today during testimony before commissioners.

Simpson pointed to the New York City bombings earlier this month and how local emergency managers in one neighborhood used WEA to alert the community. “New York City leaders have since said the inclusion of a suspect photo with the alert would have been an even more effective tool,” he added.

Today’s Report and Order will require participating wireless providers to deliver alerts to “more granular geographic” areas.

“Geo-targeting improvements in the order will lead to best practice alert use, insuring that the warnings are sent whenever possible to the intended audience relevant to their current situation,” Simpson said.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was emphatic Thursday in his support of the WEA improvements: “When technology gives us the opportunity to save lives and to increase public safety, shame on us if we don’t seize upon that opportunity.”

The new WEA rules adopted today also will make it easier for state and local authorities to test the wireless emergency alerts system.