by Al Sacco

FCC OKs Plan for Emergency Text Message Notification System…But You Won’t See It for Years

Apr 10, 20084 mins
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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Wednesday approved a framework for delivering text messages to Americans’ cell phones and other mobile devices in times of emergency.

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The planned Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) was mandated as part of the 2006 Warning Alert and Response Network Act, which called for the FCC to come up with a variety of ways to alert the American public to disasters, terrorist attacks of other emergencies. Notifications would presumably originate from various government agencies.

The CMAS is expected to deliver three types of messages:

  1. Presidential Alerts, which could be sent from the White House to warn of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

  2. Imminent Threat Alerts, to distribute information on situations that could “pose an imminent risk to people’s lives or well-being.”

  3. Kidnapping/AMBER Alerts, related to child abductions or runaway situations.

“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,” said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in a statement.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin
FCC Chairman Martin

The news means that the FCC has adopted the technical requirements for the wireless emergency notification system so that U.S. carriers that choose to participate can begin making the necessary tweaks to their networks and services. Right now, carrier participation is voluntary, and it’s unclear which major wireless providers will work with the FCC

The system will initially distribute simple text alerts, but could include audio and video notifications in the future, the FCC says. Vibration notifications and “audio attention signals” will also be sent so that disable persons receive alerts, as well. The CMAS could become available in 2010, according to The New York Times.

Text-message-based alerts and cell-phone-based emergency notification in general aren’t new, of course. Many organization and academic institutions have been using various forms of mobile alerts for some time. (There’s even a notification system meant specifically for iPhone users.) And with text messaging quickly becoming one of the most common forms of digital communication—more than 48 billion text messages were sent in the month of December 2007 alone, according to CTIA, a wireless industry group—it makes perfect sense to institute a nationwide text message alert system.

One has to wonder what’s taking the FCC so long. And it’s also worth noting that even though the groundwork is now in place, “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,” according to Michael J. Copps, FCC Commissioner. Copps says the Federal Emergency Management Agency was expected to fill that role, but it pulled out less than two months ago, citing statutory requirements and other reasons that would bar it from taking on the responsibility. Now it looks like another agency, possibly the FCC itself, will have to step up to the plate.

I don’t mean to belittle the FCC’s announcement because the initiative is admittedly a grand one—in both scale and purpose—but two more years sounds like an

awful long time to wait before such a system is up and running. Though I guess having a cell phone notification system a couple years down the road is better than not getting one at all…and it’s likely going to take longer than that if the FCC can’t find an agency to oversee the process and cellular carrier participation remains voluntary.

What do you think?