FCC, wireless carriers team up on SMS emergency alerts

The nation's Tier 1 wireless carriers and federal agencies are coming together to deliver an SMS-based alert system for mobile phone users, with the service beginning later this year in New York City and Washington, D.C. The much-debated service will be available for customers on Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA.

Along with the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is coordinating with the carriers on the free service, which was formally unveiled today in New York. The system, known as the Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, will be available on some phones that have specially enabled chips and software by the end of the year, and will be rolled out on a nationwide basis next year. Carriers said they will require the chipset to be in all phones.

The system will send out alerts issued by the president as well as for emergencies and Amber Alerts for missing children. 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 the alerts will be accompanied by a unique signal and vibration.

"This is the ability to have your mobile device be an emergency alert device," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told Bloomberg. "Government officials can send alerts in the event of major disasters, can do it on a localized basis, and can make sure that the alerts get through even if there's network congestion."

"We don't expect the alerts to be frequent," Genachowski told the New York Times. "They will be reserved for when they are truly needed, for tornadoes or for disasters like 9/11."

The emergency alert service appears separate from the push to upgrade the nation's aging 911 system. The FCC is investigating a next-generation 911 system that would allow Americans to send pictures, video, text messages and emails to 911 answering points.

For more:
- see this release
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Washington Post article
- see this NYT article

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