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After Hurricane Harvey and the California wildfires, the FCC is aiming to upgrade the country’s wireless alert system

An early look at Chairman Ajit Pai’s forthcoming reform.

Two firefighters monitor the Blue Cut Fire as flames scorch a hillside near Wrightwood, California.
Firefighters monitor the Blue Cut Fire as flames scorch a hillside near Wrightwood, California

After a season of deadly hurricanes and devastating wildfires, the U.S. government is angling to prod AT&T, Verizon and other tech and telecom giants to do a better job of helping first responders deliver disaster alerts to Americans’ smartphones.

These short, if loud, mobile messages have, since 2012, allowed local officials to warn residents about dangerous weather on the way, criminals at large or children who have been abducted. But police officers, firefighters and other public-safety agencies long have stressed that the system is outdated, imprecise and desperately in need of reform.

To that end, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is set to unveil the latest overhaul of the system tomorrow, a draft that would require telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon to work alongside smartphone makers to ensure that wireless alerts are delivered only to narrowly tailored geographic regions that are in harm’s way.

The proposal, described to Recode early by two agency sources, aims to address concerns that the existing system results in too many people receiving too many alerts. Public safety officials say the broad blasts at times have created confusion or panic, while prompting many Americans to shut off the functionality on their smartphones.

For their part, AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon and other tech and telecom companies periodically have raised technical objections with expanding the country’s wireless emergency alert system. Some have pined for the FCC to slow down on implementing any new rules -- though they insist they support the alert system.

If Pai can muster the votes at an FCC meeting, however, companies would have to update their networks and devices by Nov. 30, 2019, the two sources said.

“Emergency officials across America have told the FCC how important it is to better pinpoint these alerts to impacted communities,” Pai said in an earlier statement. “This would encourage more local officials to use these alerts during emergencies as well as lead Americans to take more seriously the alerts they receive on their mobile devices.”

For many local leaders, the stakes in this wonky debate at the FCC literally are life and death.

Take the massive, deadly wildfires in Northern California last year. Some regions, including Napa Valley, did not send wireless alerts to local residents because they felt the system is imprecise — and might have created a massive traffic meltdown, as unaffected locals rushed out of the region. The incident led Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris to write the FCC in October, stressing the urgent need to reform the alert system.

A woman in a kayak paddles down a flooded street.
A woman paddles down a flooded road while shuttling deliveries for her neighbors during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

Months earlier, officials in Harris County, Texas — one of the most populous counties in the country — raised similar objections.

Sometimes, local leaders said they sought to send wireless alerts only to a slice of their county, not the entire region, which they couldn’t do. They feared the lack of specificity would only create panic among residents who weren’t actually in danger. And their fears appeared to come to life as soon as Hurricane Harvey made landfall last year. At one point, county authorities had no choice but to blast out “a countywide message ... because of the lack of granular geo-targeting available,” they told the FCC at a meeting this December.

Those recent mishaps weighed heavily on the FCC, said officials at the agency, which last sought to update the wireless alert system under former President Barack Obama in 2016. That work and early debate fed much of Pai’s forthcoming proposal, which seeks to deliver some of the reforms that first responders have long sought.

Chief among his plans, Pai wants to require that all wireless giants participating in the program — which is technically voluntary — deliver alerts to 100 percent of devices in a narrowly targeted area, with only a tiny, 0.1-mile margin of error, two FCC officials said.

Under the current system, state and local leaders specify to wireless carriers the swaths of their cities or regions they want to target with an emergency alert, and companies like AT&T and Verizon basically must make their best effort to reach that area. In practice, it’s meant that countless Americans who aren’t at risk — and don’t need to be disturbed — are sometimes bothered by a loud buzz on their smartphones.

Technically, the FCC’s order doesn’t tell the wireless industry how they have to accomplish this task. But the proposal does point out one idea: Relying on smartphones’ GPS systems to deliver emergency alerts only to those in a designated area, agency sources said.

This sort of geofencing, however, might not sit well with device makers, including Apple. The company quietly told the commission last year that solving its wireless woes through “device-based” solutions could be difficult to implement and perhaps worsen iPhone battery life. The company did not immediately respond Monday to an email seeking comment.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai (C) and commission members Mignon Clyburn (L) and Michael O’Rielly (R) sit at their bench in front of the FCC plaque.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai (C) and commission members Mignon Clyburn (L) and Michael O’Rielly (R)
Alex Wong / Getty

Otherwise, the new system, described by two sources familiar with the plan, must be implemented by Nov. 30, 2019. Public-safety officials sought these changes sooner, while telecom giants initially urged the FCC to wait until 2021 — a period that agency officials described to Recode as too long. Come January, the wireless industry’s top lobbying arm, CTIA, again raised issues with the deadline.

In the last round of reforms, the FCC in 2016 ordered that wireless companies had to allow for alerts as long as 360 characters, up from the previous maximum of 90 characters. Obama’s FCC also required companies like AT&T and Verizon to accept and send alerts that include hyperlinks, phone numbers and other languages, including Spanish. Initially, the wireless industry also resisted some of these changes and urged the FCC to hit the brakes.

As part of his draft order expected tomorrow, though, Pai offered the telecom industry one break: They would have until May 1, 2019, before they would be required to deliver wireless emergency alerts in Spanish, agency sources said.

“We support Chairman Pai’s efforts to enhance the [alert] system’s geo-targeting capabilities through device-based solutions, and believe the FCC should adopt new rules that are technically feasible along an achievable timeline,” said Matt Gerst, the assistant vice president for regulatory affairs at CTIA.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said CTIA supported a November 2019 deadline for new wireless alert rules. The trade association actually has asked for more time to comply.)

This article originally appeared on

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