Mobile Emergency Alerts Could Expand, but Wireless Group Sees Challenges

At a time when a prominent senator is calling for improvements to the Wireless Emergency Alert System, one association is pointing out that those improvements could put additional stress on the system at an inopportune time.

The Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA) has been in the news lately.

The alert system—generally used to warn of inclement weather, to inform the public of an Amber Alert, or to draw attention to immediate safety concerns—was used earlier this month to publicize the name of a terror suspect believed to be behind an explosion in Manhattan.

The use, approved by both local and federal law enforcement officials, received mixed reviews but may have played a role in the quick arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami.

Now, at least one prominent official says that the WEA system’s limited capabilities may be holding it back from its role in informing the public. But one association has been quick to push back with some practical considerations.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) suggested that because the alert about Rahami did not come with a photo or other multimedia elements, its effectiveness was limited. The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering expanding WEA to allow for slightly more descriptive text, URLs, and multimedia. But the agency is not moving fast enough for Schumer.

“The bottom line is that in the era of Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat our Wireless Emergency Alert System needs to get as smart as our phones and be updated so it can deliver photos and other media that has information that can save lives,” Schumer argued in a news release.

Meanwhile, CTIA, the primary trade group for wireless providers, would like to see a more measured strategy. CTIA recommended an approach that takes into consideration the stress such a change would have on mobile providers’ platforms.

“Before considering use of embedded URLs across all WEA alert categories that provide access to additional content outside of the WEA service, a substantial effort among all stakeholders would be needed to develop and implement standards, agree on approaches to mitigate customer confusion and safeguard against adverse impacts to wireless networks,” wrote Brian Josef, CTIA’s assistant vice president of regulatory affairs, in an FCC filing [PDF].

Josef added that if emergency operators were to aggressively use URLs, the system would “also increase data usage beyond the network traffic ‘spikes’ that already occur in the wake of these events and in response to these alerts.”

According to WirelessWeek, the FCC proposal would also create new classes of alerts for community public safety advisories, expand the current character count of WEA messages to 360 characters, eye strategies to improve system testing, and require mobile providers to boost their ability to target the messages.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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