FCC Outlines EAS Revisions

Ten years ago the FCC adopted rules that replaced the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), a system in use for about 20 years, with the Emergency Alert System, or EAS. Both systems had their start in CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) that was introduced in the 1950s. Each system has gotten progressively more complex; CONELRAD alerts were generated by turning the transmitter carrier on and off at five second intervals and transmitting a 1 kilocycle tone for 15 seconds. EBS used a two-tone system with voice announcements. EAS, as most broadcasters know, transmits data-modulated audio that contains basic information on nature of the alert and the alert area in addition to other information.

The FCC is concerned that EAS, in its present form, is not the most effective warning mechanism. The text of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), Review of the Emergency Alert System (Docket 04-296) was released last week. Rather than suggesting specific technical changes to EAS, the NPRM lists the current shortcomings of EAS, offers some solutions, and requests comment and other ideas.

Any broadcast engineer that's struggled to receive a weak LP-1 EAS station will recognize one of the possible problems raised in the NPRM--the reliance on broadcast stations to pass EAS alerts to other stations. The NPRM asks if other technologies, such as satellite, should be used as part of the backbone to distribute alerts to EAS entry points.

A problem that may be less obvious is the ease with which a terrorist could purchase an EAS encoder, overload the EAS receiver at an LP-1 or primary entry point (PEP) station and launch a fake national alert. Since the details of the EAS system are available to the public, it isn't inconceivable someone could write a program to generate the data stream using a PC sound card. Current EAS systems have no way to authenticate the originator, other than the station ID that anyone can key into the unit. All certified EAS encoders have the capability for password protection, but I've found most stations leave them with the default password. The FCC NPRM asks, "Who should be responsible for system security and what security standards, if any, should be implemented? How can the authenticity of EAS messages be verified and/or how can broadcasters be protected from liability issues if they inadvertently rebroadcast a false or incorrect EAS message? Would adoption of any of MSRC's Best Practices alleviate security concerns?"

Currently stations are not required to upgrade EAS equipment to meet current standards. The FCC asks whether it should adopt rules requiring broadcasters and cable operators to upgrade EAS equipment so that it is capable of receiving and transmitting the new EAS codes and if so, how long should they have to upgrade and how will it impact small cable operators and broadcasters? Should the government fund the upgrades for the smaller systems?

The FCC recognizes that people aren't always watching TV or listening to the radio and asks if additional alert mechanisms are needed, such as sending messages to cell phones. Even if a person is watching TV or listening to the radio, if they are watching DBS or local DTV stations, neither is required to carry EAS messages. If they are listening to digital audio radio or satellite radio, those services also aren't required to carry EAS messages. Since DTV stations can run more than one program stream, how do you handle alerts? The FCC has considered allowing digital "wireless cable systems" to force-tune receivers to one channel carrying the EAS message. However, few if any DTV receivers currently have force-tune capability.

The FCC asked whether other standards, such as the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) should be used for transmitting alerts over other communications networks. CAP wouldn't replace EAS, but could provide a way for emergency managers to access EAS. As discussed in a session at NAB this year, the CEA is promoting a standard for EAS/SAME system that automatically activates an NOAA weather radio or other receiver (TV/radio) when an alert is received. The FCC NPRM asks if this technology should be mandated in other consumer electronic devices.

Other issues the NPRM deals with involve procedures for distributing and controlling alerts at the local and state level to avoid excessive interruption of programming, and making emergency warnings available to persons with disabilities. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Review of the Emergency Alert System (Docket 04-296) asks a lot of questions and provides a number of possible answers. If you are interested in how EAS will work in the future, take time to read it and, if you have the expertise, file comments.