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Before Hurricane Harvey, wireless carriers lobbied against upgrades to a national emergency alert system

A wonky debate at the FCC has real-life consequences, and public-safety officials aren’t happy

Waves crash ashore as the Texas Gulf Coast braces for Hurricane Harvey.
Here comes Harvey.
Joe Raedle / Getty

As Hurricane Harvey bombards Texas, a different, decidedly more political storm is brewing in the U.S. capital — over the emergency alerts that first responders around the country are able to send to smartphones.

For years, the Federal Communications Commission has endeavored to upgrade the sort of short text-based messages — often accompanied by a loud alarm — that authorities have used since 2012 to warn Americans about rising floods, abducted children and violent criminals at large.

But efforts to bring those alerts into the digital age — requiring, for example, that they include multimedia and foreign-language support — have been met with skepticism or opposition from the likes of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, and even some device makers, too.

Carriers have argued that some of those changes could prove technically difficult or costly to implement, while congesting their networks — and in recent months, they’ve encouraged the FCC to slow down its work. Tech giants like Apple and Microsoft, meanwhile, also have lobbied the agency against some proposed rules that might put more burden on them for delivering emergency alerts to smartphones.

It all amounts to a great deal of well-lawyered bickering in Washington, D.C., and it stands in stark contrast to the dire Category 4 megastorm that’s poised to cause immense rainfall, flooding and damage in Texas.

A view of the spiral cloud of Hurricane Harvey, taken from the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Jack Fischer posted this photo of Hurricane Harvey on Twitter.

Perhaps presciently, local officials there raised those exact issues with the FCC in July.

Before Hurricane Harvey existed, a top homeland security official in Harris County, Texas — which includes Houston — slammed wireless carriers and others for stalling on changes to the wireless emergency alert system, or WEA.

“Currently, Harris County rarely uses WEA because it does not want to potentially alert the entire county when a WEA message may only pertain to a certain portion of the county,” wrote Francisco Sánchez, Jr., liaison to the director and public information officer in the county, in a letter to the FCC. That includes, he said, a “hurricane or tropical storm.”

Reached yesterday before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Sánchez said it “frustrates” local officials there and elsewhere that they can’t easily send alerts about flooding and other hazards to very narrow, specific parts of his expansive slice of Texas, one of the most populous in the United States.

To most Americans, wireless alerts are mere annoyances — loud interruptions that have spawned no shortage of news stories over the years explaining how to turn them off. Generally speaking, most of these quick text bursts can be disabled through a smartphone’s notifications or settings page, with the sole exception of so-called “presidential alerts,” which are reserved for the most dire national emergencies.

To public-safety officials, however, the alerts are a lifeline for dispatching critical, real-time information during a disaster — albeit, for some, an outdated one. For years, police officers, firefighters and other first responders have urged the FCC to expand the system so that it takes advantage of the tools that make smartphones so useful — like links to websites, maps of affected areas and photos and videos.

Those groups believed they notched an early victory during the Obama administration, under the leadership of then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. In 2016, his agency adopted an order that increased the maximum length of a wireless emergency alert from 90 characters to 360 characters. It also pushed wireless giants to support transmission of those alerts in Spanish. And it required that companies soon allow “embedded references,” like URLs and phone numbers, in the alerts they pass along on behalf of public-safety leaders.

The changes applied only to telecom providers that participate in the program, which includes major carriers — but, technically, participation is voluntary.

In doing so, Wheeler also put the agency on track to weigh other, more ambitious reforms to wireless alerts. He teed up for debate new requirements that the messages finally enable multimedia, like video, and that they would be more specifically targeted to exact locations — including smartphone owners in harm’s way. Wheeler even wanted to look into tools that would allow recipients to send information about a disaster back to first responders.

Under Trump, the fate of those ideas now rests with Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the FCC. In the past, at least, Pai has supported reforms to the content and delivery of wireless emergency alerts.

Already, though, Pai has faced an onslaught of opposition from the regulation-wary telecom industry.

Previously, the well-heeled Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for wireless giants, known as CTIA, argued against a full-scale, aggressive overhaul of emergency alerts. Among their fears: Too many users clicking too many links or other multimedia during an emergency would overwhelm companies’ networks. Those alerts may look like text messages, but they’re actually delivered by other means — so telecom companies had technical concerns about the changes, too.

By January, though, CTIA explicitly asked the FCC to hit the brakes on any additional reforms. In official comments with the agency, the lobbying group again stressed “proposed rules pose technical and economic challenges that render implementation infeasible or premature.”

Asked yesterday about its doubts, a CTIA spokesman responded in a statement: “The wireless industry partners with federal, state and local emergency authorities to deploy wireless networks and handsets that support unique WEA capabilities, and continuously seeks to enhance the WEA system.”

For now, Pai also has offered little indication as to his next steps. But speaking on the matter in September 2016 — at the time, as a commissioner — he pointed to the likes of Houston and Harris County, Texas, as he made the case for reform.

“Millions of people who live in these communities could miss out on potentially life-saving information because [the alert system’s] current brushstroke is too broad,” he said.

At the time, Pai endorsed a “device-based approach to geo-targeting,” he explained, which he said meant that devices themselves would “screen emergency messages and only allow the relevant ones through.” Local officials like Sánchez in Harris County, Texas, who have advised the FCC in recent months, share a belief that device-makers should play a greater role, while fretting that the “carriers are asking for the FCC to delay the timeline for some of these critical improvements.”

But the idea hasn’t exactly won support among tech giants like Apple and Microsoft, which have quietly taken their own concerns to the FCC in recent weeks

During a private call with top FCC officials, for example, Apple’s leading lobbyists said the iPhone cannot currently do what Pai has proposed — and if it did make the tweaks, it might “harm consumers by delaying their access to critical safety information.” Also, it’d drain the battery, Apple said.

The company did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did a spokesman for FCC Chairman Pai. On Friday, though, Pai stressed the telecom agency is prepared for the incoming hurricane.

“We have activated our Disaster Information Reporting System, deployed personnel to Texas, and provided emergency response officials and licensees with emergency contact information,” he said. “These actions will enable us to monitor the extent of communications outages and, working with industry and government partners, support restoration efforts.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those on the Gulf Coast, and we urge residents of the affected areas to take shelter and other necessary precautions,” he said.

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