FCC updates rules for wireless emergency alerts

FCC updates rules for wireless emergency alerts

The Federal Communications Commission recently adopted new rules for the Wireless Emergency Alerts system that are intended to better align the regulations with improvements in wireless technology.

The WEA system was established in 2012 and sends warnings and information to the public’s wireless phones about severe weather, missing children and other emergencies.

It works by allowing authorized federal, state and local government entities to geographically target an alert message to the Federal Emergency Management Agency-operated Alert Aggregator through a secure internet-based interface. The message is then passed to commercial mobile service (CMS) providers who format it for mobile devices and distribute it to customers via a cell broadcast.

The updated rules address three major areas: alert message content, message delivery and testing and outreach.

To improve content, the FCC increased the maximum length for WEA messages from 90 to 360 characters for 4G LTE and future networks. It also requires CMS providers to support embedded phone numbers and website addresses in all WEA alerts so the public can click to see photos or call authorities, according to the FCC’s proposed rule.  

To address whether embedded references and links will overwhelm the carriers’ networks, the FCC will allow the providers “to ‘pressure test’ the use of embedded references in Alert Messages in a sample of their network area or subscriber base, prior to full Implementation,” the rule states.

CMS providers are also required to include the transmission of Spanish-language alerts, and the FCC has created a new classification of alerts, “Public Safety Messages,” that recommend actions that could save lives or property, such as emergency shelter locations or a boil-water order.

To improve message delivery, CMS providers must log and maintain alert messages at their alert gateway and make those logs available to the FCC, FEMA and the emergency management agencies that initiated the alerts. This data includes time stamps that verify when a message was received or retransmitted, and the time and error code for rejected alerts.

Providers also must provide more specific geographic targeting so that messages only reach the people they are relevant to. The FCC has narrowed the WEA geotargeting standard from the current county-level to polygon-level. Providers must transmit any alert message that is specified by a geocode, circle or polygon to the area that most accurately approximates the location to the best of the cell broadcast technology’s ability.

Finally, the FCC created a framework so that emergency managers can do proficiency training using alert-origination software. The rules require CMS providers to support the receipt of the state and local tests from the Federal Alert Gateway Administrator and distribute the tests to the desired test area.

Acknowledging that the rules may “require modifications to existing standards in order to ensure that participating CMS providers are able to comply with these proposed rules in a uniform manner,” the FCC has given providers 30 months from the date of the rules’ publication in the Federal Register to comply with rules addressing 360-character messages, Public Safety Messages, state and local WEA testing and Alert Message prioritization. Providers have one year from the rules’ publication to support embedded references and 60 days to support WEA geotargeting and alert logging. 

While the FCC said most emergency management agencies agree that the proposed compliance timeframes are reasonable, the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, an international organization representing the wireless communications industry, thinks the FCC’s “technically unrealistic timeline” could impede the delivery of emergency alerts, according to a statement by Scott Bergmann, vice president of CTIA regulatory affairs.

The CTIA supports improvements to the system, but encourages the FCC to work with all stakeholders to make sure these capabilities “reach consumers in a manner that safeguards existing alert capabilities and wireless networks.”

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.

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