Alerts & Notifications

FCC Changes to Wireless Emergency Alerts Will Take Time

The FCC has revised the rules for Wireless Emergency Alerts to make significant changes in the emergency alerting system. As significant as the changes are, the obstacles are equally significant.

by Rick Wimberly / September 28, 2016

Don’t expect Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) to change quickly as a result of the rule changes by the Federal Communications Commission.  The commissioners voted to make substantial changes in WEA, running the gamut of enhancements requested by public safety practitioners and other stakeholders.  But, the changes won’t be implemented immediately; much has to be worked out before they can be.  

Among the rules changes, any single one of them quite significant:

  • Increase the number of characters of a WEA message from 90 to 360 characters.  WEA message length has been a gnawing concern of practitioners who complain that 90 characters are simply not enough to communicate a workable alert.  At the very least, this change will require applications used to craft the messages to be modified.  Training will change.  And, handsets may need to be modified.
  • Include URLs and phone numbers within the message.  Carriers have repeatedly and aggressively expressed concern about this change.  They worry that networks could become overloaded if exceptionally large numbers of people hit the mentioned websites or phone numbers at the same time.  While the lack of images in the WEA messages related to the manhunt for the New York/New Jersey bombing suspect generated a lot of attention from the media and politicians, imagine the potential for network overload if the the 8.5-million+ in the area tried to access a single URL or call a particular number at the same time.  It’s going to take work to figure out how to mitigate this issue.  The standards organization that handles such things (ATIS-Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions) this week spun up new projects to tackle this and other WEA issues.  Development of standards is always very tricky. This will take time.
  • Make geographic targeting of WEA messages more precise.  This, too, is going to take careful consideration.  The carriers don’t send their WEA broadcasts in a consistent manner, even within their own networks.  And, there’s basic physics of broadcast signals at play.  Signals are not precisely controllable.  Remember, WEA messages are not one-to-one/many communications like text messages.  They are actual broadcasts from a cell tower, picked up by “receivers” in handsets.
  • Create a new class of alerts called public safety messages.  As it stands, WEA can only be used for imminent threats, AMBER Alerts, and Presidential Messages.  This new category would allow public safety practitioners to use the WEA system to send out messages that don’t meet the standard of an “imminent threat,” but could be important for public safety.  Boil water orders are often cited as examples (although you could argue that drinking tainted water could be an imminent threat).  Regardless, this change will likely create lots of discussion, even controversy among practitioners and the public.
  • Broadcast WEA messages in Spanish, as well as English.  Perhaps someone has figured it out, but we wonder how a message sent to a particular handset would know that it should be speaking English or Spanish.  Again, work to be done.
  • Establish provisions for practitioners to test WEA, train personnel on the use of WEA, and raise public awareness.

Infrastructure changes will likely be needed by both the carriers and FEMA IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) which serves as the “gateway” for receiving and disseminating WEA and other types of messages.  And, any infrastructure changes will need to be based on standards and other technical issues that evolve as the individual rules changes are considered.  

To us, the changes all seem like forward progress.  But, let’s not be naive.  The changes will be complicated and time consuming.  The carriers’ trade group, The Wireless Association, issued a statement today saying, “While we support efforts to enhance this important voluntary system, we are concerned that the FCC’s technically unrealistic timeline adopted today may impede the delivery of emergency alerts.”

Plus, let’s remember that, although the FCC can make rules for the carriers, they can’t make carriers participate in WEA.  It’s a voluntary program. Hopefully, the rules changes won’t cause some carriers to withdraw their participation.

Also, don’t think these changes are a result of media and political attention generated as a result of the New York/New Jersey situation.  While it certainly brought more attention to the ruling, these changes have been in the works for months and months.  They result from recommendations made by the FCC advisory group of stakeholders, the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC).

You can read the FCC’s press release here.  The FCC's rule-making documents are forthcoming.  We'll watch this closely.