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FCC Mandates EAS for Digital TV, Proposes New System

The FCC has set Dec. 31, 2006 as the effective date of new EAS rules for DTV, DAB, digital cable and SDARS (Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service) providers and May 31, 2007 as the effective date of new EAS rules for DBS providers.

The EAS referred to in the commission's report uses the same standards as current analog EAS equipment. Prior to this report, there was no requirement for these digital program distributors to participate in EAS.

This is NOT a new alert system. DTV stations that are simply simulcasting (in standard definition format or upconverted to HDTV) their analog programming on their DTV channel and not running any additional DTV program streams should already be in compliance with the new rules. Stations transmitting more than one DTV program stream are required to transmit EAS messages on all program streams, including streams not available free to the general public, effective Dec. 31, 2006.

The FCC said that it was giving broadcasters more than a year to comply with the new requirements so they have time to resolve technical issues, including "equipment procurement, installation, and training in order to comply with the requirements..." The FCC allows "wireless cable" operators to force tune TV sets to a specific channel to receive EAS information and said it would give broadcasters similar flexibility to determine the method they use to distribute EAS messages to all program streams.

"DTV broadcasters may separately transmit EAS messages on all program streams or, if the technology is available, transmit EAS messages on one stream and force tune all receivers to that stream," the commission said. "We do not mandate force tuning, however, as recommended by Harris Corporation, because most DTV receivers currently on the market do not have force tuning capabilities. We believe that DTV broadcasters should have the option to utilize force tuning technologies when feasible, as long as every viewer receives the same EAS message regardless of the channel he or she is watching."

Finding a way to switch DTV receivers to the same program stream for EAS messages sounds easy -- simply change the PIDs (the data stream identifiers) on the virtual channels to point to the program stream with the EAS message -- but differences in the way various DTV receivers handle these changes could make it difficult to implement. Some older DTV receivers may lock up and others may mute long enough to miss the EAS announcement. Some DTV multiplexers may allow remapping of encoder PIDs with the EAS message to the PIDs used by the different channels. If the program streams are using the same format and data rates, they may switch smoothly, otherwise some DTV receivers are likely to freeze briefly or lock up completely when the format or data rate changes suddenly.

The First Report and Order (R&O) and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) includes a copy of the new rules, including provisions for digital cable, digital radio (terrestrial and satellite) and operators I haven't discussed here. If you haven't reviewed FCC Part 11 in a while, now might be the time to do it!

The FNPRM offers suggestions for implementing the "next generation" alert and warning system. Many of the issues discussed in the FNPRM address operational, not technical EAS issues. The FNPRM discusses alternative ways to transmit alerts to broadcast stations, including using satellite and the Internet. It also asks whether alerts should be extended to cell phones. Comments filed in the original EAS NPRM expressed a need for more specific information, similar to what exists in the audio feed, in the video display, which now only carries the header code.

The FNPRM seeks comment on the use of common messaging protocols for alert distribution, such as the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).

The deadline for filing comments in the FNPRM was set at 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, with another 30 days allowed for reply comments.