Carriers warn FCC not to move too hastily in expanding emergency alerts

U.S. carriers say they support the FCC's effort to expand its emergency wireless alert (EWA) system, but they're urging the agency not to make any hasty moves.

The nation'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.

Wednesday was the deadline for public comments on the move, and the FCC received more than three dozen documents just this week from businesses, trade groups and governmental agencies. All four tier-one operators filed comments, as did the CTIA.

The 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.

The FCC should expand messages to support 360 characters "for messages on LTE networks and on devices first offered to consumers 30 months after adoption of new rules," Verizon (NYSE: VZ) wrote. "The current 90-character limit should remain for other devices, including LTE devices offered to consumers prior to that 30-month timeline, because it will not be feasible to install the necessary hardware and software changes for LTE devices through an over-the-air update. And operating system providers and handset manufacturers will require time to incorporate new standards and capabilities into their products."

AT&T (NYSE: T), T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS) and Sprint (NYSE: S) all agreed, warning the FCC that complex messages may not be supported by existing 2G and 3G networks. So while the FCC should move forward with plans to send more complex alerts to newer devices on 4G networks, it must continue to support the 90-message limit for older handsets and networks, they said.

The carriers also disagreed with the FCC's proposal to adopt policies that would allow officials to include URLs, phone numbers or other content in emergency alerts, saying such a move could cause network congestion if many users click on a link moments after receiving an alert.

The CTIA said it "respectfully requests that the Commission refrain from imposing at this time requirements regarding content (by including telephone numbers, links to URLs, and multimedia), logging and reporting, multiple languages, and priority access. These proposals risk, at best, significantly delaying the near-term enhancements to the WEA system previously described and, at worst, discouraging voluntary wireless provider participation." Instead, the CTIA said, the FCC should first allow "the appropriate technical experts" to evaluate the feasibility and potential effectiveness of such a move.

The FCC will accept reply comments for the next 30 days before voting on final rules.

For more:
- see this FCC page

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