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NYC, FCC Announce Cell Phone EAS

On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, FEMA Administrator William Fugate and top executives from cell phone companies AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon convened at the World Trade Center site in New York to announce the "Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN)."

PLAN will allow customers with an enabled mobile device to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. The service will be available in New York City by the end of this year, at least six months before the rest of the nation.

"In both the public and private sectors, I've always believed in the need to harness technology in new ways, including ways that its designers hadn't anticipated, said Mayor Bloomberg. "The City's opt-in Notify NYC system is a great example of that. It alerts people to dangers and delays via email and mobile devices, and it has become a national model of emergency communication."

The mayor noted that with the kinds of threats made against the city at the World Trade Center, Times Square, and other places popular with visitors and tourists, he felt that the community would be "even safer" when authorities are able to transmit warnings to everyone, regardless of where their phones came from.

Bloomberg congratulated Genachowski and Fugate for the new safety technology.

The PLAN messages, which are 90 characters or less in size, will appear as text messages on mobile devices and will be accompanied by an attention-getting signal and vibration.

Messages only cover three critical emergency alerts: (1) alerts issued by the President, (2) alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, and (3) Amber alerts. Participating carriers may allow subscribers to block all but the Presidential alerts.

Messages are geographically targeted, which mean that New York customers would not receive alerts intended for New York City if they were outside the alert area. However, someone visiting from outside the area with a PLAN capable device would receive New York City alerts while in New York City.

The Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act requires participating wireless carriers to activate PLAN technology by the FCC-determined deadline of April 2012. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have agreed to offer PLAN ahead of schedule.

The FCCPLAN FAQ said, "PLAN complements the existing Emergency Alert System, which is implemented by the FCC and FEMA at the federal level through broadcasters and other media service providers. Like the Emergency Alert System, which is a modernization of the earlier Emergency Broadcast System (1963-1997), PLAN is intended to keep up with new technologies that can keep Americans safer."

It noted that the new system will be able to provide significant public safety roles for broadcasters, cable service providers, wireless service providers and other operators.

The 90 character limit restricts how much information can be sent using PLAN.

The FCC FAQ said PLAN's technology "ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested user areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services." In such a situation, locating and displaying additional information quickly using wireless broadband technology via the Internet is likely to be frustrating and possibly life-threatening. Combining PLAN with broadcast Mobile DTV would allow customers to see and hear additional data, and receive maps and updates in real time, assuming, of course, that the wireless carriers provide broadcast Mobile DTV capability in their portable devices.

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.