FCC Adopts New EAS Rules

Thursday the FCC released the Second Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 07-109) in its review of the Emergency Alert System. The second R&O adds a section to the EAS rules, Section 11.56, that states; “Notwithstanding anything herein to the contrary, all EAS Participants must be must be able to receive CAP-formatted EAS alerts no later than 180 days after FEMA publishes the technical standards and requirements for such FEMA transmissions.” The FCC did not change the SAME format used by broadcasters to transmit EAS messages, but the change will, at a minimum, require setting up a different EAS decoder to receive these CAP (Common Alerting Protocol)-formatted alerts.

How will stations receive EAS alerts? In the second R&O, the FCC says, “We expect that EAS participants will collaborate closely with FEMA and other governmental entities to fully implement such requirements. Accordingly, should FEMA announce technical standards for any Next Generation EAS alert delivery system, EAS participants must configure their networks to receive CAP-formatted alerts delivered pursuant to such delivery system, whether wireline, Internet, satellite or other, within 180 days after the date the FEMA announces the technical standards for such Next Generation EAS alert delivery.”

The second R&O explains the CAP-format is based on the World Wide Web Consortium’s Extensible Markup Language, XML. Many devices and systems can accept XML and it permits links to voice, audio or data files, images and multilingual translations of the alert as well as links providing additional information. Obviously the current SAME-based EAS would have a hard time relaying all this information, but it could make it a lot easier for automated stations to provide the additional information in their video and audio programming. Stations could use their Web sites to provide the extra information. One of the major complaints about the current EAS notification procedures is it is impossible to authenticate alerts. CAP supports digital signatures to authenticate the sender and validate the text. An encryption field permits encrypting messages. Several government agencies are already using CAP, including the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program, the National Weather Service, and the Oregon Amber Alert Program.

While it may sound like CAP is an Internet Protocol standard, it is not. As a text-based standard, it can work over any feasible transmission medium. It is also an open standard, which means that it cannot be controlled by any single entity, is platform-independent, openly published, available royalty free or at a minimal cost, and is approved through an open process. For more information on the standard, see OASIS Common Alerting Protocol v1.1.

How difficult will it be to modify your EAS equipment to handle the new standard? While CAP does not require TCP/IP, it appears likely the Internet will be one of the distribution paths for the Next Generation EAS, whether wired or wireless, backed up by satellite and possibly a hybrid satellite/terrestrial digital distribution system like the one proposed by the Association of Public Television Stations and FEMA. It doesn’t look like today’s NOAA weather radio, AM or FM receivers will work. Decoders will have to extract relevant location data from the XML message and reformat it for transmission in the current EAS SAME protocol.

How easy was it to update your EAS equipment to handle the change in daylight savings time? Were you able to do it without changing any hardware? Does your EAS equipment have an Ethernet port? EAS systems that allow easy updates without changing PROMS and have network connectivity may be able to be updated to receive CAP messages, provided they have enough internal memory to decode the messages. See RF Report for March 9, 2007, which described how different EAS manufacturers handled the daylight savings time change. One of the major EAS equipment manufacturers, TFT, noted in its comments that outlying areas that have difficulty receiving EAS messages from broadcast stations or satellites “can still avail themselves of the ubiquitous nature of the Internet to originate and receive EAS messages.”

In a future article, I’ll outline manufacturers’ plans for implementing CAP. Meanwhile, it may be wise to allow some money in your 2008 budget to upgrade your EAS equipment!

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.