On January 30, 2018, the FCC will consider a proposed Second Report & Order and Second Order on Reconsideration (Proposed Order) to improve the effectiveness of the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system,[1] which was deployed in April 2012 and which has transmitted to WEA-capable mobile devices more than 33,000 emergency messages to date related to, among other emergencies, severe weather, active shooters and AMBER alerts.[2] 

The WEA system recently became a subject of public attention due to events in Hawaii, where residents across the state spent almost 40 minutes believing that a ballistic missile was incoming due to an errant alert message.[3] However, even before emergency alerts became front-page news, the FCC initiated steps to improve how emergency alerts are deployed through the WEA system.

In September 2016, the FCC adopted a Report & Order to improve the content and delivery of alert messages to wireless devices, as well as a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) seeking comment on proposals to further improve emergency managers’ ability to geographically target alert messages.[4] The current WEA system allows federal, state and local government entities to send geographically targeted alert messages to the WEA-capable mobile devices of participating wireless providers. Government entities provide the alert messages to the FEMA-operated Integrated Public Alert and Warning System using FEMA-approved alert software, and FEMA then authenticates and disseminates the messages to participating wireless providers, along with a description of the geographic target area and the amount of time the alert should remain active. Wireless providers then push out the messages to their customers, typically using cell broadcast technology.[5] 

Limitations in geo-targeting, however, have hindered the WEA system’s effectiveness. Under current rules, wireless providers must transmit alert messages to an area that “best approximates the specified geocode, circle, or polygon” provided by the issuing government entity to “an area not larger than the propagation area of a single transmission site.”[6] Under this standard, alert messages can suffer from significant “overshoot,” particularly in rural areas where cell broadcast facilities are sparsely deployed.[7] The Harris County, Texas, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, for instance, commented that it “rarely uses WEA because it does not want to potentially alert the entire county when a WEA message may only pertain to a certain portion of the county.”[8] Other commenters echoed the need for more precise targeting to ensure effective responses and to avoid causing unwarranted stress or fatigue among recipients in unaffected areas, which can render the WEA system less effective by causing recipients to disable WEA alerts on their wireless devices.[9]

The Proposed Order would address geo-targeting limitations by requiring that participating wireless providers “match” messages such that they reach 100 percent of the geographic target area specified by the government issuer with no more than 0.1 mile overshoot, effective November 30, 2019.[10] The Proposed Order does not specify the technical approach that wireless providers must use to comply with the proposed new requirements, but it suggests that “geo-fencing” supplies an adequate means of compliance.[11] Geo-fencing utilizes GPS technology to allow issuers to send geographic coordinates for the target area along with alerts, with the end-user’s device displaying only those messages that are relevant to the geographic area in which the device is located.[12] The new, narrower geo-targeting requirement would apply only to new mobile devices offered for sale after the rule’s effective date and to existing devices capable of being upgraded to support geographic matching.[13] For all other devices, or devices whose users have disabled location services, wireless providers must continue to deliver messages to the area that “best approximates” the target area.[14] 

In addition to the more stringent geo-targeting rules, the Proposed Order would also require that, by November 30, 2019, WEA-capable mobile devices preserve alert messages in a consumer-accessible format and location for at least 24 hours after the alert message is received on the subscriber’s mobile device.[15] Commenters in the proceeding submitted evidence that wireless subscribers sometimes have difficulty understanding messages and that the ability to re-read messages after the initial alert would improve comprehension, particularly for more detailed alerts approaching the 360-character maximum.[16] Like the requirement for geo-targeting, the Proposed Order allows wireless providers technical flexibility in the approach they take to meet this requirement.[17] 

The Commission would also provide additional clarity regarding when wireless providers are deemed to be participating in the WEA system “in whole” as opposed to doing so “in part.” Under existing WEA rules, providers that elect to participate only in part must disclose to customers at the point of sale that wireless alerts may not be available in all devices or in the provider’s entire service area.[18] The Commission’s rules, however, do not currently define what it means to participate “in whole” or “in part.” The Proposed Order would amend Section 10.10 to state that wireless providers participate in the WEA system “in whole” when they agree to transmit WEA messages, consistent with the Commission’s technical standards, protocols, procedures, and other technical requirements in the entirety of their geographic service area and when all of the mobile devices that they offer at the point of sale are WEAcapable.[19] Providers would participate only “in part” when they have elected to transmit WEA alerts in only some of their geographic service area, or when only some of the mobile devices they offer for sale are WEA capable.[20] 

Finally, the Proposed Order would extended the current compliance deadline for supporting Spanishlanguage alert messages from November 1, 2018, to May 1, 2019, consistent with the separate deadline for supporting alert messages up to 360 characters in length. According to the Proposed Order, the Commission was persuaded by CTIA’s petition for reconsideration, which argued that aligning the two deadlines would reduce the burden on participating wireless providers, who otherwise would need to incur separate costs for testing both Spanish-language and 360 character WEA messages.[21]

The changes in the Proposed Order appear to enjoy broad support from alert issuers, emergency management personnel and state and local government officials,[22] and the Commission seems prepared to ensure the effectiveness of the WEA system—particularly with respect to improving the accuracy of geo-targeting. In light of the public attention to the emergency alert system following the events in Hawaii, we expect further Commission focus in this space in the months and years to come.