Wireless Networking

National Mobile Alert System Gets Legs, Head Still Missing

The United States emergency response system may be coming to a mobile phone near you. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a big leap Wednesday in setting up the framework necessary to use the nation’s wireless carriers to transmit text message alerts, warnings and critical information to citizens via cell phones and other mobile devices during disasters or other emergencies, the FCC said.

Under the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act (WARN Act), the FCC was tasked to come up with a solution, which led to a First Report and Order that outlines the rules that will govern the nascent Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).

“The ability to deliver accurate and timely warnings and alerts through cell phones and other mobile devices is an important next step in our efforts to help ensure that the American public has the information they need to take action to protect themselves and their families prior to and during disasters and other emergencies,” noted FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Good News for Dangerous Times

“Now Americans will be able to receive warnings about dangerous weather and other imminent threats — including man-made threats like a terrorist attack — in their immediate area, even if they are not near a television set or radio and even if their electrical power is down,” Commissioner Michael Copps noted. “This is good news for all of us — especially in these dangerous times.”

Wireless carriers that choose to participate in CMAS will transmit text-based alerts to their subscribers. As technology evolves, the CMAS may eventually include audio and video services to transmit emergency alerts to the public. To ensure that people with disabilities who subscribe to wireless services receive these emergency alerts, the FCC adopted rules that will require wireless carriers that participate in CMAS to transmit messages with both vibration cadence and audio attention signals.

Cell phone packing people can get three types of emergency messages:

  • Presidential Alerts are national emergency-related alerts delivered to the American public that would preempt any other pending alerts.
  • Imminent Threat Alerts provide information on emergencies that risk lives or well-being.
  • Child Abduction Emergency/AMBER Alerts focus on missing or endangered children due to an abduction or runaway situation.

“This is the next natural step. The majority of Americans carry cell phones, and those cell phones can get text messages, and this is a way to reach a majority of Americans in any particular area … and your cell phone is with you no matter where you are,” Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications industry analyst, told TechNewsWorld.

“This is something that should have happened years ago, but nobody thought about it,” he added.

Who’s Running the Show?

The actual implementation, however, remains a bit up in the air.

“By adopting technical requirements for the wireless alerting system today, we are enabling wireless providers that choose to participate in this system to begin designing their networks to deliver mobile alerts. It would have been better, of course, if we had a federal entity in place now to take on the role of alert aggregator and gateway,” Martin explained.

Commissioner Copps cut to the chase: “Unfortunately, there is one final issue that remains unresolved by today’s order — an issue that, if left uncorrected, threatens to vitiate it entirely. So far, no federal agency has stepped up to fulfill the unified aggregator/gateway role that virtually all stakeholders agree is necessary for our mobile alert system to work properly.

“Indeed, if no agency assumes this role, the rules we enact today will never become effective, and Americans will never receive the protection of emergency alerts delivered to their mobile phones,” he noted.

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