Electronic reporting option, designed by FCC without substantial input from affected industries, perplexes some engineers

UPDATE ALERT — The FCC has revised the on-line report at least as of approximately 5:30 p.m. on November 1.  Read all about it here.

Our friends at Radio World have supplied us with some email threads in which broadcast engineers have been raising questions and sharing thoughts on the Nationwide EAS Test reporting requirements. The following information may be helpful to clarify some of the issues that have arisen.

Geographic Coordinates The electronic reporting option requires the reporting station to specify its transmitter coordinates. While neither the form nor the instructions make this clear, word has it that the on-line form accepts coordinates only in decimal form. Apparently, you can forget the standard degrees-seconds-minutes (DSM) format. The FCC’s website includes a conversion program, if you’re having trouble doing the math yourself. Heads up, though – as indicated at the FCC’s site, the Commission generally uses NAD27 for broadcast coordinates, even though it uses NAD83 for other services. (Why? That’s not clear, as the SBE has tried to make clear.) You should be able to rely on the FCC’s own converter, but we can’t promise that, if some discrepancy pops up, the FCC will necessarily hold you harmless.

[Blogger Observation #1 – Why on earth would the Commission require the submission of transmitter coordinates at all when those data are (or should be) readily available to the Commission in its own existing database? By forcing EAS reporters to manually enter decimal values for their transmitters, the Commission is introducing the potential for multiple innocent discrepancies which could undermine the usefulness of the reported results.]

[Blogger Observation #2See comments, below, on whether to report electronically or the old-fashioned hard copy way.]

Mandatory Cellphone Information The electronic reporting option also requires that the reporting licensee provide a cellphone number (in addition to a “phone” number) for the identified contact person. At least one person has asked what to do if the contact doesn’t have a company-issued cellphone. There is no answer for that question. The Commission, in its infinite wisdom, has apparently set up the form based on the assumption that everybody has a cellphone, so the notion that somebody might not just does not compute. Note that the form does not necessarily require entry of a company cellphone number. That is, if the contact person has a personal cellphone, that number could be entered. However, the same questioner also expressed reluctance to cough up a personal cell number because of privacy considerations – the number would, after all, be going into a database run by an agency of the federal government. The answer there is simple, if perhaps not all that comforting: the Commission has supposedly set up its database to assure the confidentiality of the submitted information. Whether you choose to believe that answer or place any confidence in it is your business.

[Blogger Observation #3See comments below on electronic vs. paper filing.]

HD Radio Multicast/FM Translators   Radio and TV stations providing multiple digital streams are required by the Commission’s rules to transmit EAS messages on all streams. However, since all streams are being transmitted from a single transmitter covered by a single license, we believe that only one EAS report would be required for all streams, including the main. Note that FM translators simply rebroadcasting the signal of some other station are not required to participate in the EAS.

State Plans Out of Date At least a couple of folks expressed frustration at their inability to get up-to-date information about their state plan. If a state plan hasn’t been updated lately and the available contact information for responsible state officials doesn’t work, there’s not much that can be done. The FCC provides contact information for state officials as well as Internet addresses for some state plans. But even a quick glance down the FCC’s list indicates that some info (e.g., cellphones, email addresses) is missing for lots of the listed officials. And some of the state plans that are accessible date back more than a decade. Folks located in states lacking current contact information or plans should probably contact their state broadcast association for assistance.

Can’t Receive Primary Entry Point Station One writer was worried because he is uncertain of his station’s ability to receive a useable signal from the PEP station to which his station is assigned. Section 11.52(d)(1) of the EAS rules provides that

If the required EAS sources cannot be received, alternate arrangements or a waiver may be obtained by written request to the FCC’s EAS office. In an emergency, a waiver may be issued over the telephone with a follow up letter to confirm temporary or permanent reassignment.

So if you’re in this situation, you may want to check with the FCC’s EAS office right away.

Electronic vs. Paper? Back in February, when the FCC committed to the Nationwide EAS Test, it required all participants to submit reports on their experience in the Test. That makes sense – why run the test if you have no way of assessing how well the system performed? But in its February order, the Commission did not lay out how those reports were to be submitted. The implication was that, by default, they would be filed on paper – but the Commission held out the promise of a more convenient electronic reporting system that would supposedly make life easier for everybody.   That system was repeatedly characterized as a voluntary alternative to the on-line system that was supposed to be unveiled “shortly”, according to the February, 2011 order.

The Commission fell short on that scheduling, however. The on-line reporting system was not unveiled until October 26, a scant two weeks before the Nationwide Test. Since the system does not appear to have been vetted and test-driven by broadcasters before that unveiling, it’s probably not surprising that some bugs – er, we mean idiosyncrasies – might turn up as the 15,000 or so stations start the input process. If the Commission really did expect its electronic reporting system to be 100% problem-free right out of the box, it was probably unrealistic.

In any event, the Commission now seems to be promoting the e-reporting system as preferable to paper – and, indeed, the Commission never did get around to providing a paper “form”, or even a template, for paper submissions. All it did was provide a list of information that would have to be reported. That list – which appears in Paragraph 54 of the February, 2011 order – identifies the following data that is to be recorded and reported:

  • whether they received the alert message during the designated test;
  • whether they retransmitted the alert;
  • if they were not able to receive and/or transmit the alert, their ‘best effort’ diagnostic analysis regarding the cause(s) for such failure;
  • a description of their station identification and level of designation (PEP, LP-1, etc.);
  • the date/time of receipt of the EAN message by all stations; the date/time of PEP station acknowledgement of receipt of the EAN message to FOC;
  • the date/time of initiation of actual broadcast of the Presidential message;
  • the date/time of receipt of the EAT message by all stations;
  • who they were monitoring at the time of the test, and the make and model number of the EAS equipment that they utilized.

(Also, check out Paragraphs 62-65 of the February, 2011 order for a restatement of the required data.)  Note that this list does not include some of the information required by the electronic form – contact person info (with or without cellphone), transmitter coordinates, etc. Also, while the electronic approach requires a separate form for each separate station, there is no similar restriction on the paper version. (Given the overall lack of specific direction provided by the Commission with respect to the paper option, a reasonable reader might even conclude that there aren’t any practical “restrictions” at all.) That is, it would appear that licensees filing on paper are free to organize their submissions as they wish, as long as they submit the required information. (Note that Section 11.61(a)(3)(iv) – the reporting rule adopted last February – specifies only that “[t]est results as required by the Commission shall be logged by all EAS Participants and shall be provided to the Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau within forty five (45) days following the test.” Not much detail there, either.)

The fact that the Commission has not been more specific about the paper option could afford reporting stations an opportunity to craft their own paper reporting forms that might be more efficient to prepare – from the reporter’s standpoint – than the electronic form. That’s ironic, of course, because the FCC clearly anticipated that an electronic system would be preferable to all concerned. Had the Commission come up with its e-reporting system sooner, and had it made the system widely available for testing by the affected community (i.e., broadcasters and cable operators) months ago, that might have been the case. Bugs could have been worked out, questions could have been resolved, apparent problems could have been avoided. For whatever reason, the Commission chose not to go that route. It has itself to blame if the reporting results fall short of its expectations.