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New FCC rules will require U.S. wireless companies to deliver emergency alerts more accurately

The agency also offered an update as to what happened in Hawaii earlier this month.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at a meeting
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
Alex Wong / Getty

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to update the country’s wireless emergency alert system, aiming to ensure that local officials only sound alarms on Americans’ smartphones when those citizens are truly in harm’s way.

The system, implemented in 2012, allows first responders around the country to dispatch short, loud, text-message-like bulletins to warn mobile users about inclement weather, abducted children or criminals at large.

But public-safety leaders long have complained the alerts are inaccurate, rendering it difficult to use them in times of disaster without creating undue panic. And they fret that “over-alerting” has proven so frustrating to smartphone owners that they’ve simply turned off the alarms entirely — rendering it even more difficult to communicate in times of an emergency.

To that end, the FCC unanimously adopted new rules, first detailed by Recode earlier this month, that require telecom giants like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon to distribute wireless alerts in a much more precise way beginning in late 2019.

“When disaster strikes, it’s essential that Americans in harm’s way get reliable information so that they can stay safe and protect their loved ones,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday.

The changes come in response to complaints from local governments around the country, including Harris County, Texas. One of the most populous regions in the state, leaders there said they struggled to use the system even as Hurricane Harvey ravaged residents’ homes.

It’s that same system, however, that failed in Hawaii earlier this month, when officials accidentally sent out an alert suggesting a ballistic missile attack was imminent. The erroneous message, coupled with similar alarms on television and radio, caused widespread panic and fear — and prompted a federal investigation.

The FCC’s work to update the emergency alert system predates that mistake, which officials — who briefed commissioners on the matter Tuesday — attributed to “human error and inadequate safeguards.” That includes a miscommunication between supervisors over whether a test was supposed to take place.

In the end, the agency’s new rules won’t remedy either of those mishaps. But the FCC did say it is working with local governments to develop better practices for when and how to send alerts.

“We cannot simply dismiss this as being an inadvertent mistake that only public safety officials in Hawaii need to address,” said Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

Technically, the wireless alert system is voluntary; telecom giants, including the four major U.S. carriers, participate by choice. And under Pai’s rules, companies that take part in the program would be required to deliver wireless alerts to everyone within a local government’s target area — with only a 0.1-mile overshoot. The requirement would enter effect on Nov. 30, 2019.

So, too, would smartphones capable of receiving these alerts have to offer a way to cache them for at least 24 hours after they are sent.

Lastly, the FCC vote Tuesday requires that wireless carriers support Spanish-language alerts by May 1, 2019. It’s an extension of a deadline put forward by the telecom agency under former President Barack Obama. As part of that previous reform of the alert system, telecom giants also must begin allowing alerts up to 360 characters in length starting next May.

Not everyone, however, is happy with Pai’s proposal. Telecom heavyweights like AT&T and Verizon, speaking through one of their top Washington, D.C.-based trade associations, had urged the FCC to grant them extra time to comply with the new rules. Pai did not agree with their request.

Even as he voted for it, Pai’s fellow Republican commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, expressed his own doubts with the timeline, stressing the agency “cannot wish technologies into existence.”

For others, including public-safety officials in New York City, the concern had been that wireless alerts haven’t kept up with the digital age — and that the messages would be better if they included multimedia, including photos. That particularly seemed to be the case during the bombing in Manhattan in 2016, when NYC’s leaders dispatched an alert seeking information about a suspect but could not include a picture.

The FCC didn’t address that issue Tuesday. But Clyburn expressed hope it might be addressed in the coming months after her colleagues agreed to seek public feedback on the issue.

This article originally appeared on

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