New Digital EAS System Demonstrated

A new Digital Emergency Alert System, which uses digital broadcast signals to send emergency messages to PCs and mobile devices, was demonstrated in the Washington, D.C. area this week. The system, which was developed by the Association of Public Television Stations in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency is still in the plot stage, but could be up and running by the end of 2007.

The new system broadcasts messages over a secure connection to satellite and public television stations across the country, which can then download it and datacast the message to television stations, cable service providers, satellite radio and wireless carriers nationwide. This technology allows DEAS to target specific areas, like the Gulf Coast during a hurricane, or a broad spectrum, and distribute critical information over a variety of media. DEAS is initially set up to go to local, state and federal officials, as well as media networks. Although it has the capabilities to go to cell phones and other mobile devices, details are still being worked out.

In this week's demonstration, a test alert was relayed from FEMA to PBS; the signal was then uplinked to the PBS satellite and received by WETA in Arlington, Va. and other public TV stations across the country. WETA then datacast the message on its DTV transmitter, which was received by a PC at the WETA headquarters equipped with an antenna to receive the signal. The audio that WETA datacast was sent to XM Radio's heaquarters, uplinked to their satellite and received on XM radios at the demonstration. The messages were also sent to cell phones and Blackberries, through the use of Alert Manager, a proprietary software technology developed by SpectraRep, a Chantilly, Va.-based developer of datacasting solutions for broadcasters.

The new system is designed to replace the aging broadcast Emergency Alert System, which the FCC wants to update.

"The current EAS has its roots in the Cold War, and still relies on technology from that era," said John Lawson, president and CEO of APTS. "You had to be watching one of the three major networks or listening to a radio station to have a chance of receiving the alert."

Lawson said the system would be ready to go in a matter of months to Gulf Coast states and then Atlantic Coast states. He said they could have all public broadcasting stations equipped and ready by the end of next year in all 50 states. Currently there are several public TV stations partaking in the pilot project, including Alabama Public Television in Birmingham, Ala., Maryland Public Television in Owings Mill, Md. and New Jersey Public Television in Trenton, N.J.

The pilot project was initiated in October 2004. So far, APTS has spent $1 million on the project, raised through private and public funding. Lawson said they will need $4.5 million more to complete the project and $1 million annually to maintain it. Lawson said the funds to extend DEAS' capabilities are up for review in the Warning, Alert and Response Network (or WARN) Act, which has versions in both the House and Senate.