Responding to a November rulemaking notice (NPRM) in which the FCC laid out various suggested improvements to the wireless emergency alert (WEA) system, players in the wireless industry endorsed proposals to increase the length of WEA messages, but advised the FCC against other enhancements, such as embedded phone numbers and URLs in WEA alerts, that could lead to network congestion and impact the distribution of emergency information to the public.
Mobile carriers throughout the U.S. participate voluntarily in the WEA system. Specifically, the NPRM proposes to improve the accuracy and relevancy of WEA alerts, and public access to the system, by (1) increasing the length of WEA messages from 90 characters to 360, (2) including embedded phone numbers and URLs in the text of WEA messages, (3) enabling WEA public safety advisories that include “boil water” recommendations and the locations of emergency shelters, and (4) requiring carriers to deliver targeted WEA messages to smaller geographic areas that are more directly impacted by the emergency situation at hand. Comment was also requested on “the technical feasibility of implementing multilingual and multimedia alerting” and on other proposed improvements.
Local government and public safety groups such as the City of Los Angeles, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APSCO) voiced strong support for multimedia messaging, embedded phone numbers and URLs, and geo-targeting, which APSCO said would reduce “false alarms” and “inquiries from members of the public who are located outside of the impacted area yet receive the alert.” As it endorsed geo-targeting and an increase in WEA message length to 360 characters, however, wireless association CTIA warned against multiple language messaging (other than Spanish) and embedded phone numbers and URLs, which risk “straying from the highly effective system in place today” and would also “jeopardize wireless providers’ significant participation in this voluntary system.” Echoing CTIA, AT&T affirmed its support for increased WEA message length but drew the line on embedded phone numbers and URLs and on multimedia messaging, which it said “is not feasible because multimedia is not supported by existing cell technology.” With the exception of alerts in Spanish, AT&T told the FCC that it viewed multiple language alerts as “impracticable because of the increased burden it would place on the cell broadcast network.” Verizon agreed that proposals to add more languages “would require substantially higher message volumes, thus risking delays, congestion and consumer dissatisfaction.” T-Mobile also advised the FCC that proposals to incorporate URLs and multimedia applications into WEA alerts “should not be adopted because such requirements would adversely impact network capacity and performance during emergencies.”