Many broadcasters have had just about enough with all the digital and the upgrading and the government mandates.
But there’s another major transition ahead, and this one could save lives.
PBS has completed a major phase in the new digital EAS (D-EAS) system for Presidential alerts. Most of the country’s 174 PBS stations are equipped to receive such messages over PBS satellites, with state emergency operations centers expected to be online in June.
(click thumbnail)State emergency operations centers, like this one in South Carolina, will be a key part of the national D-EAS system using the PBS infrastructure.That’s just one network within the vision of Advanced EAS, where redundant, interoperable systems use open-source hardware and clear protocols to get local, state or national emergency information to everything from TV and radio to cell phones and electronic billboards.
“The EAS paradigm is in transition right now,” Said Ed Czarnecki, executive vice president of Chantilly, Va.-based SpectraRep, the systems integrator on the PBS D-EAS project.
Broadcasters nationwide will ultimately have to upgrade their EAS equipment. But until there are clear rules and protocols, and advanced EAS networks to plug into, broadcasters don’t have to run out and buy new boxes quite yet.
Right now, the old EAS—a mesh of the Presidential alert system, which has never been used, plus other elements like local AMBER Alerts and National Weather Service information—is still running strong. PBS stations are ready now to pass Presidential emergency alerts over the new D-EAS system to their own viewers but not much further.
Ultimately, national EAS messages would continue on from the PBS facilities to designated state and local emergency operations centers as well as radio stations. Those stations are required to have equipment in place in June.
From there, signals—text, data, audio, video—would go on to cable headends, radio and TV, plus cell networks, police stations and more.
CAP (Common Alert Protocol) is an international standard that is likely to be the law of the land in upcoming EAS networks.
FEMA is leaving the door open on the issue; a spokeswoman said the agency “is working with other organizations both domestically and internationally that are interested in developing standard protocols for emergency alerting such as the Common Alerting Protocol.”
But even if FEMA calls for CAP today, numerous questions remain. The obligations of stations—what they must do with a CAP message beyond simply being able to receive it—are not yet clearly defined. Within the CAP protocol, what types of information would the systems require for seamless communication, for example?
“I think it’s clear we’re going to need additional clarification from the FCC if not a Third Report and Order, spelling out exactly how this CAP standard is to be integrated into broadcast EAS,” said Czarnecki, (see “Who the CAP Fits” below.)
On the state and local level, the debate is also ongoing about who should be allowed to originate an emergency alert and thus trigger networks into action. Public broadcasters have argued to the FCC that only state-level officials (“governors and their designees”) should have the power to trigger the system. Some public safety groups have argued for local officials to have that authority. Czarnecki, PBS and many broadcasters fear too many AMBER Alerts and local thunderstorm warnings could clutter TV screens and networks if not subject to careful geographic targeting.
WAITING FOR THE FUTURE
“That’s part of the highly fluid, evolving environment we’re in,” said Czarnecki. “The rules have come out, they’re well thought out, there’s a lot in them, but I think there’s a lot of fine-tuning that needs to be done.”
Anticipating a CAP-oriented EAS, several companies say they have CAP-compliant products, but Czarnecki warns against jumping to conclusions about what that means. “The challenge with that is that it may be CAP-based, but that doesn’t necessarily mean interoperable, that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be compliant with a future FCC/FEMA paradigm.”
Very simple questions remain: How is the CAP message to be used in the EAS? What fields are required?
“Just within the data format there are a whole bunch of assumptions,” said Czarnecki. “Then you get into the issue of how that data is relayed, how it is consumed by broadcasters and other communications media. And now you’re getting into questions of data standards and software standards and hardware standards. All that’s got to be considered if not explicitly spelled out.”
The vision is to have states able to come up with their own systems, finding the hardware and architectures that work best for them, yet integrate with the national system—all within the rules of FCC and FEMA.
SpectraRep, which has been working for several years on public warning systems, has some products, including its Alert Manager, that could be part of such local solutions.
The federal government has been slow to offer major funding for future emergency alerts. FEMA, under executive order to be in charge, has cobbled funds together from various programs, according to Mark Erstling chief operating officer for the Association for Public Television Stations, which speaks for PBS in Washington.
PAYING FOR IT
“Our feeling is there needs to be funding for state origination and there needs to be funding to put receive sites at every cable headend, radio and TV station, at every hospital, at every police station,” Erstling said. “And because it can be conditional access, the information going to the TV and radio stations for transmission can be one set of messages for the public, and logistics and other information can be going to hospitals and police departments or fire departments.”
Erstling sees applications such as an office building buying one receiver and connecting it to a local area network, so a government alert would show up on every computer in the building.
Erstling foresees as many as 60,000 receive sites nationwide. Even at $300 a box ($18 million), that’s just a tiny percentage of the DHS budget.
Another goal: gear to be able to dynamically allocate bandwidth on the fly. “Right now it’s a very complicated process, but if they could eventually just throttle it up or throttle it down based on an emergency, that would really help.” he said.
“There are all these capabilities that this system has,” he said. “It’s just a matter of implementation, and that’s driven by whether or not there’s funding for it.”