Mark Goldberg

The Canadian Telecom Summit

The emergency broadcast network

When I was growing up, we used to see regular tests of the emergency broadcast system being conducted on American TV stations.

We were told “This has been a test of the emergency broadcasting system. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with federal, state and local authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news, or instructions. This station serves (the name of operational area). This concludes the test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”

Nine years ago, the CRTC had Pelmorex create the National Alert Aggregation & Dissemination [NAAD] System by mid-2010 to serve as the core of Canada’s National Public Alerting System (NPAS). At the time, participation by broadcasters was on a voluntary basis. In 2014, recognizing a lack of voluntary participation, the CRTC required just about all broadcasters and TV distributors to participate in the NPAS. The costs of operating the NAAD System are borne by TV subscribers and will continue to be part of the fees from mandatory distribution of The Weather Channel.

However, with reduced reliance on traditional broadcast programming and increased adoption of advanced mobile devices, the CRTC launched a process to develop a wireless national public alerting system. Later this week, the CRTC is expected to clear the final gate prior to its launch, by approving an industry consensus report for an awareness and education campaign.

The system itself was approved 11 months ago [CRTC 2017-91]. At the time, the CRTC set a 12-month implementation schedule, but referred a number of issues to the Canadian Interconnection Steering Committee {CISC) for resolution. As a result, wireless service providers were told they would “not be required to begin distribution of emergency alert messages until the Commission receives CISC’s final reports and issues a decision on those matters.”

The last outstanding issue to be resolved is public awareness and education for the alerting system. In its decision last year, the CRTC asked CISC to examine:

  1. A WPA awareness and education campaign should be a coordinated effort between SOREM [Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management Federal/Provincial/Territorial Public Alerting Working Group], federal, provincial, and territorial EMOs [emergency management officials], WSPs [wireless service providers], the NAAD [National Alert Aggregation & Dissemination] System administrator, and the Commission. However, the Commission did not receive fulsome responses regarding certain elements of an awareness campaign, such as the content of the campaign, the timeline, delivery mechanisms, and funding. Considerable coordination among all stakeholders will be required and, therefore, the Commission is of the view that CISC would be the most appropriate forum to address this issue.
  2. Accordingly, the Commission requests that CISC report back to the Commission, with a progress report by 5 July 2017, and a final report by 3 October 2017, with recommendations on a WPA awareness and education campaign. The reports should include the following information:
    • who should be responsible for the campaign;
    • what material the campaign should include;
    • how the campaign should be funded;
    • how the campaign should be delivered; and
    • when the campaign should start.
  3. The Commission encourages EMOs and SOREM to participate in the CISC process.
  4. Given that the obligation to distribute alerts only applies to LTE networks, the Commission directs WSPs, as part of the campaign, to notify their subscribers with non-LTE-compatible handsets that they will be unable to receive emergency alert messages on their mobile devices.

Wireless alerts can be an effective way to communicate with citizens. The FCC recently reported that its system has been been used over 33,000 times since 2012, including 4 times in response to wildfires in Northern California, 16 times during the wildfires around Los Angeles and in areas affected by hurricanes last year, including 21 alerts sent in Puerto Rico alone. But wireless alerts caused a panic in Hawaii less than two months ago when human error during a drill resulted in a message being broadcast warning of an incoming ballistic missile. An FCC investigation found “A combination of human error and inadequate safeguards contributed to the transmission of this false alert.”

In his statement about the Preliminary Report on Hawaii False Emergency Alert, FCC Chair Ajit Pai said “The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an emergency alert, it is indeed a credible alert. Otherwise, people won’t take alerts seriously and respond appropriately when a real emergency strikes and lives are on the line.”

The telecommunications industry can implement the capability for messages to be broadcast to enabled devices, but emergency management officials will need to create and maintain confidence in the system. As the CRTC wrote, “Alerts on mobile devices will warn Canadians about dangers to life and property in a timely manner so that they can take appropriate action.”

Canadians need to learn how to recognize alerts in order to respond to warnings. Too many tests, or use of the system for trivial events can result in a form of alert fatigue, rendering the system useless.

Watch for the ads and for the first test of the emergency cell broadcast system. In case of a real emergency, your device will provide you with official information, news, or instructions. I’ll miss the preface of the old US broadcasters’ attention signal.

[Update: March 8] The CRTC gave its approval to the awareness and education plan in a Decision today, clearing the way for Canada’s Wireless Public Alert systems to begin operations April 6.

We have added a new panel to the agenda for The 2018 Canadian Telecom Summit, exploring “The Evolution of Emergency Communications: NG-911, Wireless Public Alerts.” Visit the conference website to check the full agenda.

The Canadian Telecom Summit will take place June 4-6, 2018 in Toronto. Have you registered yet?

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