Broadcasters, Emergency Officials Meet to Discuss NextGen TV, Improve Coordination

AWARN Executive Director John Lawson opens the Washington DC area AWARN roundtable (Image credit: Future)

WASHINGTON—Representatives from the broadcast industry met with public emergency managers recently to discuss the future of emergency alerting in the new ATSC 3.0 standard (aka “NextGen TV”).

The meeting, held last week at NAB headquarters here is part of a series of roundtables sponsored by the Advanced Warning and Response Network (AWARN), an alliance of broadcasters, government officials and manufacturers tasked with developing the new advanced emergency alerting service for the ATSC 3.0 over the air service. 

The ability of ATSC 3.0 to combine broadcast with IP brings the promise of far more detailed and targeted information that can be relayed to the public during emergencies. This ability for broadcasters—whose transmission facilities have to meet FCC requirements for security and reliability— could make a crucial difference in a world where the kinds of cellular services consumers rely on every day are far more vulnerable and likely to fail, as evidenced by recent storms, including Hurricane Ian.

What kind of information, how it’s presented and how best to relay it to the myriad of devices was among the main topics of discussion at the meeting. Jerald Fritz, Executive Vice President for Strategic and Legal Affairs for ONE Media, a division of Sinclair Broadcast Group, emphasized the importance the broadcast community put on improved mobile reception when developing ATSC 3.0; something that could not be achieved in 1.0.

“What we've now enabled is mobility—we can put it in your tablet, on your laptop, or on your phone,” he said. “That's critical in the emergency informing field.” 

Fritz showed several screenshots showing different layouts of how and what information could be relayed on a TV or mobile device screen, from maps of escape routes to sources of additional information, weather maps, school closings, emergency updates, etc. The plethora of information and how it can be presented can be daunting, however. 

During a demonstration of its emergency alerting app that showcased such features, Kevin Wong with ONE Media discussed how the company has approached its development. 

“There's a lot of potential here to show additional information that you expect to get on the internet, including an augmented experience,” he said. “It's really just a matter of what information is available and making it accessible and organizing it. So we're still working on enhancing the experience to provide more information, making it more accessible.”

Although cord cutting has increased and the number of consumers receiving TV over the air has incrementally grown over the past decade, the vast majority of  consumers still watch via cable and/or broadband, so how do the emergency alerting capabilities of ATSC 3.0 fit into the multichannel and mobile device world of today, if they're not available on pay TV?

“[Broadcasters] are currently talking with the MVPDs (multichannel video program distributors)... to make sure that they're going to be taking the 3.0 service—not just the 1.0 service—to transmit to those folks that have cable systems,” Fritz said. “That's assuming that they have electricity and power to run their television station. Because when power goes out, the cable systems pretty much go out as well on their televisions that work. That's why we believe it's critical to have ATSC 3.0 in mobile devices and laptops and tablets and phones.” 

On that note, despite the lack of ATSC 3.0 compatibility on mobile devices, Fritz pointed to the international focus of the standard and ONE Media’s ongoing work with Saankhya Labs, its chip partner based in India and the potential offered by the world’s second most populous nation. 

“With respect to the cell phone companies, we have decided to do it ourselves, to show what the capabilities are,” Fritz said, pointing to the company’s ongoing development of its Mark One Android-based smartphone it’s developing with Saankhya. “India is conducting broadcast spectrum testing in Bangalore and Delhi right now to show what direct to mobile will look like and we believe that it will be successful, and that success will then manifest itself here in the United States.”

Sulayman Brown, Deputy Coordinator for the Dept. of Emergency Management and Security for Fairfax (Va.) County Gov’t., discussed the evolution of the region’s emergency preparedness efforts through the creation of the National Capitol Notification System that, over the past decade, has streamlined the way local governments in the DMV area alert both their internal departments as well as the general public. As communications from pagers and cellphones have evolved to the sophisticated smartphones of today, the notification system has adapted to those changes. 

Brown noted the increasing value of using social media for emergency communications. “A lot of our messaging is out on social media," he said. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all of that is now connected to our notification system.”

Brown sees the emergency alerting capabilities through ATSC 3.0 as an important addition to a menu of emergency communications capabilities but is also cognizant of the realities of today’s consumer choices and getting the message to where the consumers are. He also thinks there’s room for improving communication between local broadcasters and emergency officials. 

“Essentially we need better communication about who makes the decisions at the broadcast station,” he said. “Can we get you out to our location where we can walk you through a particular situation? What's our trigger for sending out messages? Is it that big of an emergency so that you feel more comfortable putting that message out? This is the message, so it's got to be trust. I don't know if you have that now.” 

“In a lot of jurisdictions in the National Capital Region, they have a public affairs manager who worked for local stations before so we have that relationship,” he added. “But what I’d like to know is, ‘what do you need from emergency managers?’”

The goal of the roundtables, which will continue in Raleigh and New York in the new year, is to not only provide a tutorial on the emergency alerting capabilities of ATSC 3.0 but to also enhance dialogue between local stations and their local emergency officials to improve coordination during emergencies, as well as use that feedback to improve the design and form of 3.0 alerts. 

The roundtables are helping to open the lines of communication as both broadcasters and government agencies adapt to the evolution of mass media, according to John Lawson, executive director of the AWARN Alliance. “We're trying to build relationships,” he said. “We talk about technology, but this is really about relationships, getting to know your counterparts and finding out the best ways to work together.”

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.