FCC moves forward on mobile alert system

The Federal Communications Commission published a notice of proposed rulemaking Jan. 3 to establish a commercial mobile alert system that would let wireless providers send emergency alerts to users of cell phones and other devices.

In the notice in the Federal Register, the FCC asks for public comments on the recommendations of the Commercial Mobile Services Alert Advisory Committee regarding the technical protocols, procedures and requirements for such a system. Comments are due Feb. 4.

Congress, through the Warning Alert and Response Network Act, ordered FCC to adopt technical standards for wireless providers to send emergency messages to the public. Commercial mobile service providers may voluntarily choose to send such alerts.

The goal in setting up rules for the system is to facilitate the alerts to targeted geographic areas as much as possible while also avoiding network congestion. During disasters, wireless networks often get overloaded as victims and family members try to obtain aid.

Another goal of the system is to ensure that the emergency alerts used by various providers and devices are compatible with one another so users can receive alerts when away from their home bases.

Other aims industry executives discussed include standardization of emergency messaging so cell phone users can expect a common tone or signal when using different devices and aggregating alerts so users are not inundated with multiple alerts from different providers.

"By starting this rulemaking today, we take a significant step towards implementing one of our highest priorities ? to ensure that all Americans have the capability to receive timely and accurate alerts, warnings and critical information regarding impending disasters and other emergencies irrespective of what communications technologies they use," the FCC wrote in the notice. "As we have learned from recent disasters, such as the Southern California fires, the Virginia Tech shootings and the 2005 hurricanes, such a capability is essential to enable Americans to take appropriate action to protect their families and themselves from loss of life or serious injury."

The rulemaking also indicates the FCC's commitment to expanding the existing Emergency Alert System requiring broadcasters to carry presidential alerts to include cell phones, cable television, radios and satellite transmissions, the commission said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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