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Americans Need an Effective Emergency Alert System: Wireless Carriers Drag Their Feet Instead

by Countable | 8.31.17

What’s the story?

Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall on August 25th, wireless carriers had lobbied the Federal Communications Committee against upgrades to the wireless emergency alert (WEA) system.

As explained by Recode.net, for years the FCC "has endeavored to upgrade the sort of short text-based messages - often accompanied by a loud alarm - that authorities have used since 2012 to warn Americans about rising floods, abducted children and violent criminals at large."

Some wireless providers and device makers, however, have been pushing back against the measures. They argue that some of the changes "could prove technically difficult or costly to implement, while congesting their networks," according to Recode. In recent months, service providers like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile have “encouraged the FCC to slow down its work.”

On August 15th, less than ten days before Harvey hit, CTIA, a lobbying group for wireless carriers, wrote the FCC that Commercial Mobile Service (CMS) providers "are committed to working collaboratively with public safety and alert originators to develop the ability to receive and transmit WEA alerts with embedded references on their networks, and to work with mobile device and OS vendors to implement embedded, ‘clickable’ references, but remain concerned about implementing such functionality without adequate time for development and feasibility testing."

Microsoft has also joined the discussion and in a letter to the FCC on August 8, Microsoft wrote that during its call with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the company "emphasized the importance of providing adequate time to develop technical standards and adequate time to develop, produce, and test devices incorporating that new technology."

And in another letter filed with the FCC on August 23, Microsoft lobbied against proposed rules that would place the burden for technological changes on them: "in an emergency context, auto-translation should be conducted by the alert originator rather than the device," Gunnar Halley, a senior attorney for Microsoft wrote.

Why does it matter?

On July 10, a homeland security official in Harris County, Texas - which includes Houston - sent a letter to the FCC outlining his frustrations with the hold-up on WEA upgrades.

"Despite a robust record that included comments from wireless carriers, vendors and public safety officials across the country, as well as a robust [Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council] process that advocated for these enhancements, the Commission’s potential delay…has left the public safety community feeling frustrated and disappointed," wrote Francisco Sánchez, Jr.

Further down in the letter, Sánchez specifically voiced his concerns for hurricane-related alerts.

"Currently, Harris County rarely uses WEA because it does not want to potentially alert the entire county when a WEA message may only pertain to a certain portion of the county…. For example, an ordered evacuation for a hurricane or tropical storm would need to communicate different messages to different areas: inland populations should take shelter, while populations near the Gulf of Mexico should evacuate immediately."

Calls to upgrade the WEA are not new. Almost a year ago, the debate was reignited during the manhunt for Manhattan bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami, who police believed was tied to explosions in Chelsea. An alert sent to smartphones said the police were searching for a suspect, but the notification didn’t include a photo of Rahami or link; instead, it urged readers to "see media for pic."

The reason for the exclusion was because wireless alerts weren’t capable of including multimedia – like photos and maps – and alerts were capped at 90 characters. In response, the Obama administration, and then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, adopted an order to "increase the maximum length of WEA messages (from 90 to 360 characters)," “support transmission of Spanish-language alerts,” and require the future support of “embedded phone numbers and URLs.”

Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee to lead the FCC, has, in the past, supported reforms to the WEA program. In 2016, Pai said, "Millions of people who live in these communities could miss out on potentially life-saving information because [the alert system’s] current brushstroke is too broad."

In January 2017, CTIA requested that the FCC forgo any additional reforms to the WEA system. "CTIA and the wireless industry wish to continue their commitment to enhancing public safety through voluntary participation in the WEA program and are dedicated to assisting in the development and deployment of feasible improvements to WEA. The record in this proceeding, however, demonstrates a consensus that several of the Commission’s proposed rules pose technical and economic challenges that render implementation infeasible or premature."

However, in the wake of Harvey, CTIA released a statement with a slightly different tone: "The wireless industry partners with federal, state and local emergency authorities to deploy wireless networks and handsets that support unique WEA capabilities, and continuously seeks to enhance the WEA system."

Since Harvey the FCC has not issued a statement regarding the proposed changes to WEA.

However, as the FCC notes, participation in the WEA program is voluntary: "Wireless companies volunteer to participate in WEA, which is the result of a unique public/private partnership between the FCC, FEMA and the wireless industry to enhance public safety."

What do you think?

Are wireless carriers right in saying they need more time do what the FCC is asking? Should participation in the WEA program be mandatory? Is the FCC doing enough to ensure the WEA program is up to date? Hit the Take Action button, tell your reps, and comment below.

—Josh Herman

(Photo Credit: Nomad_S0ul / iStockphoto)

Countable

Written by Countable

Leave a comment
(32)
  • Peter
    08/31/2017
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    Corporations are motivated by profit, not morality. Our elected officials must therefore act on our behalf to get these important updates implemented.

    Like (7)
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  • Molly
    08/31/2017
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    One of the interesting things about Harvey is that cell service remained strong for many areas. As much as we'd like to think this was an isolated storm, we've had too many of these "100" and "500" year events recently (3 in the past 12 years, Katrina, Sandy & Harvey). We need to develop adequate systems to inform and warn.

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  • Azrael
    08/31/2017
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    Make it a permanent regulation Billion dollar companies can afford it You never hear the truly in need cry poor mouth Only the rich

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  • D
    08/31/2017
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    I support an alert system as well as some sort of 911 type access.

    Like (4)
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  • GatewayJohn
    09/01/2017
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    Should be a legal requirement just like new smoke alarms in homes

    Like (3)
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  • Joanne
    08/31/2017
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    Of course these big money companies want to stop net neutrality and prevent the safety of the public because of the money. It's time to stop all the big money from hurting the people for their own gain!!!

    Like (2)
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  • AlexRoseSc
    09/01/2017
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    Participation in the program should be mandatory, are you kidding me!?! Of course it should! This is about people's lives here

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  • Deirdre
    09/01/2017
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    Yes this needs to be done. Everyone has a cellphone and this would be the quickest way to be alerted for any disaster. The big corporations have so much money that not to implement this is just showing their greed.

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  • Robert
    08/31/2017
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    Of course they should be upgraded, it should go without saying.

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  • Luann
    09/01/2017
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    What's the emergency broadcasting system for it alerts on my cell and TV. I thought about our alert system when NK shot that missile over Japan they sent out a national alert to take cover. Growing up we had a bomb shelter in our backyard I remember the drills with the sirens. Now we see advertisements to have a plan to go where? There are no bomb shelters and our population has increased to around 323 million so evacuation on short notice would be a dire task. Maybe the country needs a plan meeting the needs of each state. We need a national conversation.

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  • Dawn
    09/01/2017
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    Carrying alerts on mobile devices should be mandatory! It's simply cost causing the delays and the carriers can afford it! Where is their American spirit?

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  • J. scott
    08/31/2017
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    Absolutely vote for this and integrate the latest technology into this essential system for our national public safety and warning systems.

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  • VSB
    09/01/2017
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    We need effective emergency alert systems! It is contributing to the loss of lives in Houston and Beaumont , and we cannot afford for this to happen again!

    Like (1)
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  • Mason
    09/01/2017
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    As someone professionally in the IT field I can tell you that is is very important that they have adequate time to develop and implement this. However I also know that these companies must be forced to do it, they don't do anything unless it directly benefits their bottom line unless legally forced to do so, and even then they drag it on as long as possible and unless they face direct enforced punishment they won't do it even if legally mandated to do so.

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  • Dawson
    09/01/2017
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    Establish a national REVERSE 911 system based on ZIP CODE.

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  • Gail
    09/01/2017
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    The FCC auctions off the airwaves. They really belong to the public and the FCC gives licenses to use them. I say carriers should cooperate for the public good as part of the licensing requirement. These companies make enormous profits because there is not adequate competition because of the FCC. These companies want tiered pricing, etc. to make even more profits. They can stop whining and provide an alert system. If this was a profit making venture, you bet they would iron out the problems and come up with the system.

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  • Jackie
    08/31/2017
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    They have had years to upgrade the wireless carriers. We need alerts as soon as possible. Harvey has proven we have broken system

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  • Jesse
    08/31/2017
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    this is somewhat a good idea

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  • Sheryl
    09/01/2017
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    Only in America do corporation get to do whatever they want without having to contribute to the good of the citizens.

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  • KansasTamale
    09/01/2017
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    Wireless Carriers make lots of money. There is no way they should NOT be made to upgrade their systems for disaster alerts. Think of the lives that could have been saved if they had already done what they should just for a moral issue if nothing else.

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