FCC, FEMA to start mobile phone emergency alert system

System to carry priority message alerts in NYC and DC by Dec. 31, additional areas in April 2012

Mobile phone users would receive geographically targeted federal emergency alerts in priority "pop-up" text messages under a program announced by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on May 10.

The free Personal Localized Alerting Network service will be made available voluntarily by carriers that include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, in coordination with the FCC and FEMA. Those carriers expect to make the service operational for nearly all their subscribers in New York City by Dec. 31, officials said.

Washington, D.C., also is expected to activate a PLAN network for the emergency messages by year’s end, according to a May 9 article in the Washington Post.

Other major cities are expected to join the system by April 2012, along with additional carriers such as Leap, MetroPCS and USCellular, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said May 10.

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Consumers with PLAN-enabled mobile phones would receive the alerts automatically in the targeted geographic area. The 90-character PLAN alerts are different from Short Message Service text messages because they pop up on screen and do not need to be opened like standard SMS text messages. They also are being designed with a distinctive tone and vibration to distinguish them from other text messages, according to the FCC.

Consumers would receive three types of alerts through the system: presidential alerts, imminent alerts of serious threats such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and Amber Alerts for missing children. Carriers may give subscribers the option of blocking all but the presidential messages, the FCC and FEMA said in a news release.

The emergency messages would have priority to ensure they would not get stalled by congestion, which might otherwise affect a standard text message or voice-mail message.

The mobile alert program would supplement existing emergency alert and broadcasting systems, adding to the channels that carry emergency messages.

"Given the kinds of threats made against New York City at the World Trade Center, Times Square, and other places popular with visitors and tourists, we'll be even safer when authorities can broadcast warnings to everyone in a geographic area regardless of where they came from or bought their phone," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in the release.

The program is going into effect under the WARN Act of 2006, which required cell phone carriers that choose to participate in PLAN to activate the system by April 2012.

Authorized national, state or local government officials send alerts regarding public safety emergencies, such as a tornado or a terrorist threat, to PLAN. The service would authenticate the alert, verify that the sender is authorized, and send it to participating wireless carriers. Participating carriers would then push the alerts from cell towers to mobile phones in the affected area. The alerts appear like text messages on mobile devices.

PLAN, also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System, is being created through a public-private partnership between the FCC, FEMA and the carriers.

Customers of participating carriers are automatically enrolled in the alert system and don't need to sign up for the alerts.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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