June 30, 2012 deadline for CAP-compliance remains in place as Commission sets certification requirements, streamlines/clarifies EAS rules

In January, the Commission released its Fifth Report and Order (5th R&O) in the proceeding designed to drag the Emergency Alert System (EAS) into the digital era.  With the June 30, 2012 deadline for CAP-compliance (more on that below) fast approaching, the Commission’s action came none too soon.

The 5th R&O is the latest in a series of decisions stretching back five years. As we have described in earlier posts, the goal is a digital emergency alert system that can operate across virtually all electronic communications media, including broadcast, cable, wireless devices and the Internet. The new system has been dubbed the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).  

A keystone of IPAWS is the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP). That’s “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.” In the old days, the public safety folks had to rely on the broadcast EAS system to get emergency warnings out to the public in harm’s way.  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.  

Welcome to Next Generation EAS.

Such radical change does not come easily. That’s especially true when you have not one, but two federal agencies working on the project. IPAWS is being established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for setting many, if not most, of the relevant technical standards. But while FEMA may be setting the standards, those standards have to be implemented and enforced by the FCC, which regulates most of the facilities which will actually deliver the alerts to the public.

FEMA announced the CAP standards in September, 2010. The FCC had previously decided that, once the CAP standards were on the books, EAS participants would have 180 days in which to assure themselves the capability of receiving and converting CAP-formatted alerts. That initial deadline was extended a couple of times; it’s now June 30, 2012.

The 5th R&O resolves a raft of practical questions raised in the Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued last May. A central focus: how to overlay the CAP-receiving/converting requirement onto the “legacy” EAS system?

Recognizing that the tried-and-true EAS system has worked reasonably well for decades and affords important redundancy to the IP-based CAP approach, the Commission opted not to scrap EAS. Instead, the Commission is requiring that EAS participants be able to receive CAP-formatted messages, convert the essential information to traditional EAS protocol (known as SAME – Specific Area Message Encoding), and transmit that information promptly to the public through the traditional EAS “daisy-chain” system.

But CAP and SAME are two completely different animals. SAME is the analog system historically used by the National Weather Service for storm alerts. CAP is a far more sophisticated digital system which permits the transmission of information in various forms – audio, video, Internet links, etc. To convert from CAP to SAME, EAS participants will have to conform to the procedures set out in the Implementation Guide developed by the EAS-CAP Industry Group (ECIG). (The only exception: text-to-speech conversion. The FCC is concerned about the accuracy of that technology. Accordingly, no such conversion capacity is required.)

Before you can convert CAP to SAME, though, you first have to receive the CAP-formatted alerts. EAS participants will be required to monitor the FEMA IPAWS system for federal CAP-formatted alert messages. They can use RSS, ATOM or whatever other interface technology may be adopted by FEMA to interface with IPAWS. (While the integrated alert system is designed to allow for state-issued emergency alerts, current technical issues have prompted the FCC to relieve EAS participants – for now, at least – from having to monitor CAP-formatted alerts initiated by state governors.)  Once the monitor receives an alert, it must convert it to a SAME-format message and get it transmitted down the line.

To do that, EAS participants will need the right gear, which happens to be an important element of the 5th R&O.

EAS participants have some choices on the equipment front. They can toss their old-fashioned EAS equipment and replace it with a state-of-the-art integrated CAP-capable EAS device. Such new-fangled gear does it all: monitors IPAWS, converts incoming alerts and transmits them in SAME, while also performing all the functions of traditional SAME-based units. But that approach can be pricey and wasteful, particularly if the equipment that would be tossed is still in reasonably good shape. 

An alternative that many broadcasters have already embraced is the use of one or another “intermediary” device. These are items that independently monitor IPAWS, convert alerts, and then feed them into existing EAS units for transmission to the public. They generally come in one of two flavors: “universal” intermediate devices that, theoretically, work with virtually all legacy EAS decoders; and “component” intermediate devices that are designed to work only with specific legacy EAS gear. In the 5th R&O the FCC approves the use of such intermediary devices as a potentially cost-saving approach. 

But heads up – there are a couple of catches.

First, the Commission is requiring that EAS participants utilize the enhanced text in a CAP message to provide a visual display (check out Section 3.6 of the ECIG Implementation Guide if you have questions about this). Universal intermediary devices can’t perform that function; neither can some (but not all) component devices. The Commission is giving everybody until June 30, 2015 to make sure that their intermediary devices are capable of meeting this requirement. That means that anyone who has opted for a universal device is looking at a mandatory upgrade in the next three or so years.

Second, intermediary devices are subject to certification requirements. Since those requirements weren’t on the books until the 5th R&O, it’s safe to say that devices acquired prior to January, 2012, had not been certified in compliance with the newly-adopted rules. Anyone using such a device should be sure to confirm that it has since been certified.

Third, the Commission emphasizes that reliance on legacy systems (with intermediary devices) may not be as cost-effective as you might think. If the legacy equipment fails and needs to be replaced, the intermediary device may become extraneous. More importantly, the FCC notes that the CAP-based EAS system is still developing, and new CAP functions (and consequent changes to EAS codes) can be expected. Such changes could be incompatible with legacy equipment and related intermediary devices, requiring acquisition of still more gear. By contrast, integrated CAP-capable EAS devices are likely to be more adaptable to such changes, in some instances requiring only a software upgrade to achieve compliance with revised regulations. As the Commission cautions, “there is no guarantee that intermediary or legacy EAS devices will not have to be replaced earlier than integrated CAP-capable EAS devices.”

In addition to imposing CAP-compliant EAS equipment and certification requirements, the sprawling 5th R&O (which clocks in at 96 pages, not counting another 34 pages of appendices) lays out procedures for implementation of the new requirements, and streamlines and clarifies several provisions of Part 11. Some highlights:

No Blanket Waivers: The Commission rejects calls for blanket exceptions to the CAP compliance requirements for small broadcast stations, rural cable systems and the like. But the FCC did adopt a presumption in favor of individual waivers for EAS Participants located where broadband Internet access is physically unavailable. Any such waiver will be limited to a period of six months (with extensions only if circumstances regarding physical broadband Internet access do not change). The FCC left open the possibility that waivers might be granted where the EAS participant can demonstrate that broadband Internet access is possible but prohibitively expensive.

Streamlining and elimination of outdated and/or unnecessary rules: The Order eliminates several rules regarding the Emergency Action Termination (EAT) event code and Non-Participating National (NN) status, and streamlines the rules governing the processing of Emergency Action Notifications (EAN).

NCE broadcast “satellite stations”: Noncommercial radio broadcasters with stations acting as “satellites”, rebroadcasting of primary stations, will be deemed CAP-compliant if the authorized main studio of the primary station is compliant.

EAS Operating Handbook: While acknowledging that the current EAS Operating Handbook is, in many ways, irrelevant in the CAP era, the FCC declines for now to relieve EAS Participants of the requirement to maintain a copy of the handbook at their facilities while data from the National EAS Test is evaluated. But Sections 11.54(a), (b)(2), and (5)-(8), which relate to the previously eliminated National Emergency Condition, are now deleted from the handbook.

The 5th R&O covers a lot of EAS ground. While it makes for difficult reading – and the 829 (count ’em, 829!) footnotes don’t help in that regard – EAS participants should review it carefully to familiarize themselves with the new and revised rules. The new rules will become effective 30 days after the 5th R&O is published in the Federal Register, and the requirement of CAP-compliant equipment will kick in on June 30, 2012.