In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has criticized the FCC for not adopting additional upgrades to wireless emergency alerts (WEAs). In a blog posting, Mr. Wheeler, a visiting fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, cited WEA improvements that the FCC adopted in 2016 (TR Daily, Sept. 29, 2016).
The order required carriers to support URLs and phone numbers in all WEAs within one year of the rules being published. Also, Commissioners added to the order a commitment to require in the future a device-based geo-targeting approach, which can allow WEAs to be more accurately targeted rather than the current framework that relies on the nearest cellphone tower. The order also increased the length of WEAs from 90 to 360 characters; created a new class of alerts called public safety messages to convey urgent messages such as the locations of emergency shelters or boil-water messages; required carriers to support alerts in Spanish; required carriers to maintain alert logs that have to be made available upon request; and facilitated state and local testing of WEAs, personnel training, and public safety awareness.
A further notice of proposed rulemaking proposed requiring carriers to support multimedia content in public safety messages and sought views on necessary technical parameters and a compliance timeline. The further notice also proposed requiring WEA-capable devices to preserve alerts until they expire and requiring carriers to deliver earthquake-related alerts in less than three seconds. And it solicited views on whether WEAs could be employed to encourage crowdsourced feedback from the community during emergencies, whether additional languages should be required, and how 5G technology could further enhance alerts. The further notice also proposed requiring carriers to report each year on critical WEA performance metrics.
In his blog posting, Mr. Wheeler noted that Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, was one of the public safety agencies to urge the FCC to adopt the additional WEA upgrades and he noted the wireless industry’s concerns with the additional changes and suggested that Mr. Pai should move ahead with the changes. A number of parties have met with FCC staff on WEA issues in recent weeks at the request of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.
“The Trump FCC talks a great deal of the importance of cost-benefit analysis to its decisions. The September 2016 proposal showed the public benefits outweighed whatever costs there were for mobile carriers,” Mr. Wheeler said. “As Harris County’s letter pointed out, ignoring public safety’s recommendations in favor of undue sensitivity to the costs that might be imposed on mobile carriers puts American citizens at risk precisely when they are most vulnerable. This isn’t some abstract ideological principle, but something that threatens lives. With Harvey recovery estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars, and with even one loss of life too many, the cost-benefit case for the proposed improvements to Wireless Emergency Alerts is clear.”
CTIA says that more than 300 WEAs were sent by the National Weather Service and local authorities concerning Hurricane Harvey. —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org