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Feds Working to Harden EAS

Wireless industry executive urges lawmakers to “resist calls to allow FEMA or the FCC to impose new technology or participation mandates”

The feds want to fix EAS. At the same time, however, the wireless industry is charging ahead with mobile text alerts, calling radio and television alerting not quite enough for today’s mobile society.

FEMA and the FCC have been learning from the November nationwide test of the EAS in 2011 and want to fill in the system gaps, we’ve reported.

FCC Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau Chief David Turetsky reinforced that point with lawmakers yesterday during a hearing of the Communications and Telecom Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee.

Much of the alerting hearing concerned 911. In fact Turetsky testified the FCC next week plans to consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking focused on recommendations for improving the reliability of 911 after a storm.

Regarding the national EAS test, Turetsky testified, “Because the system had never previously been tested nationally, we expected issues would arise. Our key goal was to identify problems and address them to ensure that the system would perform as designed.”

The “vast majority” of PEP stations received the alert and were able to pass it down the daisy chain, he noted.

However, as we’ve reported, the test also revealed problems related to the reception and transmission of the Emergency Action Notification, the code used to activate the National EAS, by stations. The main issue was a transmission anomaly caused by a feedback loop at the initial distribution to the PEPS, he said, plus a lack of PEPs in various parts of the country and poor audio quality in some parts of the system.

The lack of PEPS was an issue on Oregon, Subcommittee Chairman Republican Greg Walden’s home state. The former radio owner stated that what happened during the test “could have been catastrophic in a real emergency and must be resolved in short order.”

FEMA has now built PEPS in Portland and Eugene, Oregon.

Since the national test in 2011, both FEMA and the FCC have been studying the results, and executing fixes. For example, FEMA is looking at alternative transmission methods for the FEMA/PEP connection and plans to introduce satellite connectivity to back up the Public Switched Telephone Network-based connection that FEMA currently uses to send the EAN to the PEPs.

FEMA continues to expand the PEP system from the 63 PEPs in operation at the time of the test to a total of 77 by 2015, we’ve reported.

The FCC is monitoring the effectiveness of these improvements through its weekly and monthly EAS tests, and reviewing state EAS plans to make sure stations know what facilities they’re supposed to be monitoring to get their alerts.

Meanwhile, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, testifying for CTIA — The Wireless Association, described what is now called the Wireless Emergency Alert program, as a real “public-private success story.” Carriers serving some 97% of wireless subscribers are taking part in the program, he told lawmakers, predicting that number will increase: “The program’s utility will only grow as additional WEA-capable handsets are deployed and the carriers and FEMA work toward the deployment of even more granular geo-targeting capabilities,” according to Guttman-McCabe.

Then in an apparent reference to radio’s efforts to get the carriers to embed or activate FM in phones, he urged lawmakers to support WEA and “resist calls to allow FEMA or the FCC to impose new technology or participation mandates that could threaten the public-private collaboration that has produced a 21st century complement to the television and radio alerts we all grew up with.”

Calling radio and television’s alerting mechanisms “valuable,” at the same time, the wireless industry lobbyist stressed they are now “inadequate” to serve “today’s highly mobile citizenry.” WEA fills in the gaps by reaching those “not within reach of broadcast signals” he stated.