PSHSB invites comments on EAS overhaul to accommodate CAP-based system

Attention, anyone interested in the Emergency Alert System (EAS) – and that would include current EAS participants as well as wannabes. The Next Generation of EAS is in the works – and now’s your chance to influence it. The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) has invited comments on possible changes to any or all of Part 11 of the Commission’s Rules. This invitation comes in anticipation of a rewrite of the EAS rules which will be necessary to accommodate the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standard.

CAP standard? Surely you remember back in 2007, when the FCC notified all EAS participants that they must be prepared to accept CAP-based EAS alerts 180 days after FEMA publishes the applicable CAP technical standards.  FEMA recently announced its intention to publish those standards as soon as the third quarter of 2010, so time is now of the essence for the FCC to get all of its EAS ducks in a row.

So what is this CAP thing, really?

 According to the FCC, CAP is as “an open, interoperable, data interchange format for collecting and distributing all-hazard safety notifications and emergency warnings to multiple information networks, public safety alerting systems, and personal communications devices.”  It’s part of the federal government’s deployment of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). The goal of IPAWS is to allow officials who have to respond to emergencies – think FEMA, the National Weather Service, State Governors, other public safety officials –to get the word out to the public about emergency situations as efficiently and comprehensively as possible. In the old days, such officials generally had to rely on the broadcast EAS system. Now, in addition to EAS, the CAP approach will ideally enable them to send a single, geo-targeted alert simultaneously across multiple platforms, including cellular, internet, satellite and cable television providers.  Instantaneous, ubiquitous notification to everybody, anywhere. The CAP approach will even enable special formatting of alerts for non-English speakers and persons with disabilities.

In other words, it’s EAS all grown up for the digital age.

Unlike many of the FCC’s efforts in the traditional silo model, the new EAS systems are intended to cross technological boundaries and, thus, impact everyone from broadcasters to cellular phone operators to MVPD providers. Commercial television broadcasters are already required (by the 2006 WARN Act) to incorporate CAP-enabled EAS equipment as part of their digital transition (a requirement the FCC later clarified extended to digital NCE TV stations).  There is at present no similar obligation for radio stations, but it’s reasonable to assume that a requirement is in the works.  We encourage radio operators in particular to participate in the molding of new EAS rules: since it seems an odds-on mortal lock that radio operators will be looking at significant changes in their EAS obligations, it only makes sense that they should be involved in the planning of those changes as early in the process as possible. Cellular providers participating in the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) likewise should embrace the opportunity to shape rules which have never before been applicable to the industry.

The PSHSB invitation for comments casts a very wide net. Essentially, it asks for any and all suggestions about how any aspect of the EAS rules might be modified in connection with the shift to a CAP-based alerting approach. Interestingly, the PSHSB is not a formal notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) (even though a fine print reference in the Federal Register version might suggest otherwise). That’s because the Commission is not now in a position to make any concrete proposals about its own rules – and won’t be in such a position until FEMA gets the ball rolling by formally adopting CAP standards. Once FEMA’s standards are in place, the FCC (and other agencies) will have to hustle to overhaul their systems to assure that they can interact and interconnect with the CAP system. That’s when we can expect to see an extensive and detailed NPRM.

And when that happens, we can expect the rulemaking to be expedited to the max. The new CAP-friendly EAS system is targeted to be in place – with all industry participants able to accept CAP-based alerts –  within 180 days of the formal publication of FEMA’s CAP technical standards. And for the FCC – an agency not known for its ability to make quick decisions – the 180-day deadline can be expected to be a challenge, especially since the precise starting date won’t be known until FEMA gets around to publishing its standards. But since FEMA has indicated that that could happen sometime from July-September, the FCC can at least start pulling together some preliminary thoughts now. And that’s the process the PSHSB invitation is designed to get rolling.

Comments are due May 17, 2010; reply comments are due June 14, 2010. Please contact us if you would like assistance in submitting comments.