In the wake of terror threats and hurricanes, the U.S. government is doing what it can to maximize access to emergency preparedness information, and the FCC is doing its part. The agency recently announced that it is extending the reach of its Emergency Alert System (EAS) rules to include DTV, digital cable television, direct broadcast satellite (DBS) television, digital radio (DAB or IBOC) and satellite radio (SDARS) in national EAS activations.
Broadcasters operating digitally (in DTV or IBOC) and satellite programming providers must begin participating in national EAS alerts by Dec. 31, 2006. DBS television providers have until May 31, 2007, to participate.
In the meantime, DTV operators, including digital LPTV and digital Class A television licensees, have the same EAS obligations as analog television licensees. This includes installing endec units so that monitoring and transmitting EAS test messages can be done at all times.
Multicasting DTV stations that participate in state and local EAS transmissions, which is now voluntary, must provide EAS messages on all program streams that the DTV station offers, including subscription streams. However, DTV stations will have significant flexibility in determining the method they will use to deliver EAS messages on those various program streams. One option available would be to transmit EAS messages on only one program stream and simultaneously force all receivers to tune to that stream.
Digital cable systems may likewise determine the method they will use to distribute EAS messages to viewers of digital cable channels. The primary requirement is that all viewers receive the complete EAS message on the channel they are watching. The plug-and-play agreement requires that, to be labeled as digital cable ready, a TV set must respond to EAS messages transmitted in compliance with the Digital Video Service Multiplex and Transport System Standard for Cable Television. Digital cable systems with less than 5000 subscribers, like similar analog and wireless cable systems, may provide a video interruption and an audio alert message on all channels and the EAS message on at least one channel.
DBS providers will be required to participate in national EAS activations, as well as provide national EAS messages to viewers of all channels. They must comply with EAS rules regarding encoding and decoding equipment, monitoring of EAS sources and EAS testing. Although participation in state and local EAS activations remains voluntary, DBS must pass through all EAS messages aired on local channels to the subscribers viewing those channels.
Over-the-air AM and FM radio stations that transmit a digital signal using the IBOC technical system in addition to transmitting an analog signal will be required to transmit the EAS messages that they air on all audio streams they provide.
SDARS (subscription services provided by Sirius and XM) will be required to transmit national EAS messages on all channels. They must receive national EAS messages through an endec unit from which they monitor at least two sources (including one primary entry point station) or directly monitor the FEMA. SDARS providers are encouraged to have the ability both to receive EAS alerts from state and local emergency managers and to disseminate them on the local traffic and weather channels they offer. They must comply with EAS testing requirements and monitor a state or local primary source to participate in testing.
The FCC also issued a notice of proposed rulemaking under which it will explore, along with other government agencies and the communications industry, ways in which emergency information may be made available more efficiently and effectively using new technologies.
Harry C. Martin is the immediate-past president of the Federal Communications Bar Association and a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth PLC.
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