FCC Announces Disaster Alert System for Mobile Phones

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The Federal Communications Commission May 10 announced a new plan to alert Americans of oncoming natural disasters in their area. The initiative, the Personalized Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, will allow emergency officials to send text messages to citizens' mobile phones in regions threatened by hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters.

PLAN formally launched in New York with a joint announcement from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fulgate, to be followed by a rollout in Washington, D.C.

In remarks during a recent FCC forum, Genachowski noted how Japan Meteorological Agency's earthquake early warning system relied on broadband to issue alerts to citizens' mobile phones after the first, less harmful earthquake shock wave, providing a short window for people to prepare for the more powerful shock wave that followed. The broadband-based warning system also prompted energy plants, industrial facilities, and transportation services to shut down automatically, and high-speed trains to come to safe stops. The United States currently does not have a comparable earthquake warning system.

AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have all agreed to participate in the project. A full list of carriers will be available on the FCC's website. The carriers will begin relaying the government-issued messages in New York and Washington by year's end, with the service to extend nationwide in 2012.

To receive the alerts, a mobile phone must include a certain hardware chip, which is typically found in smartphones like the iPhone 4.

“Communications technology--and in particular mobile broadband--has the potential to revolutionize emergency response,” Genachowski said in a statement. “Our communications networks need to be reliable and resilient in times of emergency. The FCC is working with carriers to ensure that they are.”

By Paul Barbagallo