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Rosenworcel: Strengthen Security With FM Chips

FCC addresses improvements to wireless emergency alert system with NPRM

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 strikes.”

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 NAB.

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 meeting.