Deadlines for comments on Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking now set: comments due July 20, replies August 4; Nation-wide test set for November 9

The future of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) is here . . . almost. With the release of a Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (3rd FNPRM), the Commission has raised a welter of questions which, once resolved, should set the penultimate stage between the 20th Century’s Emergency Broadcast System and the 21st Century’s Next Generation EAS (NG-EAS). Perhaps the most important immediate question for broadcasters: should the current September 30, 2011 deadline for implementing the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) for emergency messaging be extended? (Hint: In view of the number of open questions, the preferred answer is “Yes”.)  The deadlines for comments on that and the rest of the questions posed by the Commission have now been announced.

And on a separate but related note, the date for the long-awaited national EAS test – which we wrote about back in February – has now been set. Mark your calendars: November 9, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. EST. (Everybody take note: that date occurs just after the switch back to standard time.)

The process of converting from old-school, broadcast-centric EAS to a more ambitious NG-EAS, which will feature simultaneous messaging across multiple platforms (including cellular, internet, satellite and cable television providers, as well as broadcast radio and TV), has been in the works for several years. (Check out this post for more details.) The goal is to implement the CAP across the board. CAP is “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). 

Plain language: The Commission wants to move emergency messaging from the historic but limited analog approach to a digital system that can take advantage of all modes of electronic communication.

One problem in moving the process forward, however, has been the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is also an integral player in the process. In fact, FEMA is the agency with primary responsibility for developing the CAP standards. So the FCC had to hold off on telling its regulatees what to do until FEMA had announced those standards. FEMA took care of that step in September, 2010, starting a 180-day count-down to implementation of the standard on the FCC side.

But that count-down got extended another 180 days – to September 30, 2011 – to accommodate equipment vendors and EAS participants, all of whom need time to gear up to produce the necessary equipment, obtain it, install it, test it, etc. The extension also gave the Commission extra time to revise its own EAS rules to address the transition from previous EAS standards to CAP.

The 3rdFNPRM reflects the Commission’s latest effort to take care of its end of the project. And a big project it is. After all, while moving multiple industries to a CAP-based system is the ultimate goal, the Commission must still work to maintain the existing system in the meantime. And that’s what the Commission is working on now. The plan is to retain the existing EAS while overlaying CAP messaging through RSS feeds and Internet Protocol technology.

To achieve that goal, the Commission has issued the 3rdFNPRM, a 74-page (not including appendices, which add another 50 or so pages) thicket of questions, questions and more questions. All EAS participants should take a look at it, but be forewarned: it’s not easy reading and, in the end, it’s not clear how much input any of us will really have in the final result. 

The Commission is looking for comment on the necessary steps that it must take to overlay CAP messages with the current EAS system while trying to move away from the out-dated technology that underlies that system in favor of more modern alert technologies (e.g., RSS feeds). Also on the docket: standards for CAP-compatible EAS equipment and the extent to which any need to certify that equipment could affect the Commission’s timetable for requiring compliance. 

The Commission is also looking for input regarding the possible use of intermediary devices by EAS Participants that would receive the CAP messaging and translate the message into the format currently used by legacy EAS equipment. These intermediary devices may offer a more cost-effective approach for EAS participants to come into compliance while the Commission and FEMA are considering a more comprehensive overhaul to EAS.

Perhaps the most important question posed by the Commission in the 3rd FNPRM is whether a further extension of the CAP implementation deadline is necessary. Given the depth and breadth of questions asked by the Commission in the 3rd FNPRM, we think it’s pretty obvious that the Commission itself still has a fair amount of homework to do – and the FCC is therefore not ready to tell EAS participants that they must comply with yet-to-be-developed rules. The Commission seems to acknowledge this, and asks specifically whether an extension of the current deadline is warranted – possibly to a date following announcement of FCC certification of CAP-compliant equipment. NOTE: the deadline for such compliance is still September 30, 2011, at least for the time being. If you think that that deadline should be extended, you should feel free to let the FCC know in response to the 3rd FNPRM.

And speaking of comments in response to the 3rd FNPM, heads up: the deadline for those comments has just been announced. Comments are due no later than July 20, 2011; replies are due by August 4.