FCC Moves Emergency Mobile Alert System Proposals

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By Lydia Beyoud

Nov. 19 — The recent terrorist attacks in Paris highlight the need to improve U.S. emergency alert systems, the members of the Federal Communications Commission said at a Nov. 19 meeting.

Against that backdrop, the FCC unanimously approved a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to improve the effectiveness of wireless emergency alerts (WEAs) (PS Docket No. 15-91). Proposed steps include improving the geographic targeting of WEA messages to reach only users in areas most impacted by an emergency, as well as allowing for longer messages on devices using fourth generation (4G) LTE networks. Under the NPRM, the agency is asking for comment on whether to include web links, maps, multimedia and multilingual content in alerts.

“Reports of how Parisians used their mobile phones to call for help, access services on social media networks, receive updates on the dangers in specific geographic areas, and to tell family and friends where they can find safe havens are tragically powerful reminders that, when faced with a dire emergency, people increasingly turn first to advanced mobile technologies,” Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said.

Clyburn said the NPRM “puts our country on a path to improve the effectiveness of the WEA system for public safety officials and the citizens that they serve.”

Clyburn's fellow Democrat, Jessica Rosenworcel, also cited the importance of mobile communications during an emergency when speaking in support of the item. Rosenworcel said mobile carriers should activate FM chips in smart phones to allow users to access radio transmissions without using their data, to further enhance public safety.

“Market developments right now are making these chips more available. We should encourage these to continue,” Rosenworcel said.

The National Association of Broadcasters has thrown its weight behind the issue in recent months, soliciting support for that proposal from a number of lawmakers.

Clyburn called for continued progress on an FCC proposal to allow people to send text messages to 911 call centers and to improve wireless location accuracy.

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai said the measures proposed in the NPRM approved Nov. 19 would “help make us safer,” GOP commissioner Michael O'Rielly said the FCC would have to strike a “delicate balance” in creating obligations for voluntarily participating providers without becoming so burdensome that carriers would stop participating in the WEA program.

Hearing Aid Compatibility 

The FCC also unanimously approved a report and order during the meeting to make services like Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Wi-Fi based calling, and other new technologies compatible with hearing aids and implants (WT Docket No. 07-250). Previously, the FCC's rules were limited to mobile devices that used traditional cellular networks.

An NPRM included in that item proposes to adopt a consensus plan agreed to by several industry and consumer groups to make all wireless handsets hearing aid compatible.

The report and order would only apply to consumer-facing mobile wireless devices and services. It wouldn’t apply to non-terrestrial mobile services like satellite phones, or to public safety or private enterprise networks. Current hearing aid compatibility (HAC) rules only require a specified fraction or number of service providers' and handset manufacturers' products to be hearing aid compliant.

CTIA—The Wireless Association, a wireless industry group, welcomed the FCC's action.

“The industry-accessibility community consensus plan, developed through months of collaboration, would chart a course toward the goal of 100 percent HAC accessibility while retaining the flexibility necessary to maintain our leading innovation in mobile devices,” the association said in a news release. “We look forward to working with the Commission, consumer advocates and industry partners on this consensus-based approach.”

Pai praised the item for not seeking to impose compliance with one particular technical standard. Instead, it is seeking comment on a variety of technologies providers can use to make sure their phones function for people with hearing loss. Pai also welcomed language in the NPRM seeking comment on whether the FCC should adopt a “shot clock” setting a time limit for acting on requests for a waiver of the hearing aid compatibility rules.

“Putting ourselves on the clock is a good way to ensure that we stay on time. If a new, innovative technology simply cannot comply with our rules, it is important to give its creator a definitive timeframe for FCC action and thus certainty about whether it can be brought to market,” he said.

O'Rielly said the item had made him realize that some wireless providers were unaware of which of their handsets were actually in compliance with the rules, resulting in “unnecessary enforcement actions.” He called for the FCC to fix the issue as part of the proceeding.

The agency also adopted an item late Nov. 18 on the accessibility of user interfaces and video programming guides and menus (MB Docket No. 12-108), and dropped it from its agenda before the meeting.

NORS Improvements

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission's action on the item reflected two of his core priorities over the course of his two years leading the agency. “I can say with complete certainty that as long as I am chairman, you will continue to see similar actions to promote accessibility and public safety, and to make sure the network compact remains alive and well,” he said.

But to achieve that goal, Wheeler told reporters after the meeting that the FCC was in dire need of funding to improve its information technology—particularly for the Network Outage Reporting System (NORS), the only system in the country to track cable and other network outages.

“The simple fact here is that we need to have the capability to track what is happening in America’s networks. Currently that capability is running on outdated software, outdated equipment, and could be doing better jobs with big data,” Wheeler said.

The chairman raised the issue in a Nov. 17 FCC oversight hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee. Though that panel has no jurisdiction over appropriations, Wheeler appealed to the lawmakers to consider the agency's need to update the system—and staffing—to keep up with threats and outages to the nation's civilian, military and government communications networks.

“I am concerned in the ongoing appropriations process that there is a reticence on the part of the Congress, it appears, to fund our necessary IT projects, including upgrades,” Wheeler said Nov. 19. “If our baseline IT capabilities are hindered, then all services, all activities that rely on those baseline services are likewise hindered,” including NORS, he said.

The FCC unanimously approved an NPRM at its Sept. 17 meeting to require stricter reporting measures for undersea cable outages.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine in Washington at kperine@bna.com

Text of the FCC's news release on WEAs is at http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2015/db1119/DOC-336483A1.pdf.

Text of the FCC's news release on hearing aid compatibility is at http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2015/db1119/DOC-336415A1.pdf.