Apple, BlackBerry urge caution on longer, more complicated emergency alerts

In separate meetings with the FCC, executives from Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and BlackBerry discussed the agency's proposal to increase the length of mobile emergency alerts from 90 characters to 360. They also debated whether those alerts should include links to websites, and whether those websites would hold up under a barrage of traffic from concerned recipients.

"Apple discussed expanding WEA [Wireless Emergency Alert] length to 360 characters," the company said in a filing to the FCC detailing its meeting. "Apple explained that it would need to review proposed amendments to relevant 3GPP standards related to this topic in order to determine the feasibility of this proposal. Apple further explained that iPhones do not currently have the capability to parse a 90-character message out of a 360-character message at the device level. Apple additionally noted that long alerts may inundate the user with information, leading to less user comprehension and increasing the likelihood of user opt-out."

Apple's position largely lines up with the nation's top wireless carriers. In comments to the FCC filed earlier this year, AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and other top carriers agreed that the maximum number of characters per alert should be increased, but urged the FCC to continue to use the 90-character limit on older handsets that may not be able to support longer messages.

For its part, BlackBerry voiced its support for "the concatenating of WEA messages," or linking a series of related messages. Users of Twitter are likely already familiar with this approach, where longer messages are broken up into batches labeled "1/3," "2/3" and "3/3," for example.

Not surprisingly, officials from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International in a meeting with the FCC pushed for the move to longer messages. "APCO reiterated its support for increasing the maximum permissible character length of WEA messages from 90 to 360 characters," the group said. "Recognizing that until all participating CMS providers support 360-character messages on their networks, some messages will need to be delivered in multiple parts."

BlackBerry, Apple and others also discussed the possibility of including a website URL in an emergency alert. "Apple also suggested the Commission consider the possibility that numerous users simultaneously attempting to access embedded references during emergencies could overwhelm networks (such as cellular data networks and networks providing service to Wi-Fi routers) and web servers," the company said. "In Apple's experience, concise messages are more likely to succeed with users than messages that require readers to click through to a website for additional information."

Among other issues, BlackBerry and Apple also addressed a proposal to support multiple languages in emergency alerts, arguing against the suggestion. "For an emergency message, it was BlackBerry's view that the changing of a single word can change understanding and automatic translation can often fail to account for nuances between languages," BlackBerry said.

The U.S. emergency messaging system launched four years ago with the aim of sending urgent messages regarding severe weather, AMBER alerts and presidential alerts during a national emergency. The FCC announced plans late last year to upgrade the system in a few key areas: It hopes to increase the maximum number of characters from 90 to 360, and to enable officials to embed URLs and phone numbers in those messages. The agency also wants to make alerts better targeted to the most relevant users and communities, and to establish a testing program to improve effectiveness.

The issue of emergency alerts crystalized this week following the terrorist attacks in Belgium that killed more than 30 people.

For more:
- see this BlackBerry filing
- see this Apple filing
- see this APCO filing

Related articles:
Carriers warn FCC not to move too hastily in expanding emergency alerts
Wireless emergency alerts sent ahead of Northeast blizzard
National Weather Service starts sending alerts to handsets
Carriers set to turn on emergency alert system
Verizon teams with TeleCommunication Systems to offer SMS-to-911 services
Sprint enables new SMS emergency alert system

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