Carriers set to turn on emergency alert system

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All major U.S. carriers will begin using a new emergency alert system later this month that wireless operators and federal agencies rallied around last year.

"Wireless carriers representing more than 97 percent of subscribers voluntarily agreed to develop and offer free, geographically targeted wireless emergency alerts," CTIA spokeswoman Amy Storey told USA Today.

The system, called Wireless Emergency Alert system, will allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deliver warning messages to wireless networks from the president of the United States, the National Weather Service and state and local emergency operations centers. The system also supports AMBER alerts for missing children. Customers will receive the warnings when their phones are enabled with special chipsets and software and the warnings are sent based upon geolocation. The system is based on a series of protocols called the Commercial Mobile Alert System, or CMAS, which will provide an interface to participating carriers for delivery of critical alert information to mobile phones.

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) enabled its network to support the system last November. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular, Cricket provider Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) and Cellcom also support the WEA system.

"These text alerts will be very brief, under 90 characters," National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan told USA Today, "and are intended to prompt people to immediately seek additional information through the wide range of weather alert communications available to them, such as the Internet, television, radio or NOAA Weather Radio."

Only users within the affected areas will receive the alerts, and subscribers can opt out of all alerts except those sent by the president. The alerts will be routed through local cell towers, and will be accompanied by a unique signal and vibration.

For more:
- see this USA Today article
- see this Phone Scoop article
- see this The Verge article

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Article updated May 14 to reflect that the Wireless Emergency Alert system is not an SMS-based system.