The trial of Mobile EAS

It's a quiet day in Seattle, when, without warning, an earthquake somewhere in the Pacific Ocean generates a tsunami aimed squarely at the city's downtown.

Massive injuries and death are averted, however, thanks to the initial early warning and continuous updates that area residents receive via over-the-air TV transmission with their Mobile-Emergency Alert System (M-EAS)-enabled Mobile DTV handsets.

This Seattle tsunami is not the subject of a new disaster movie, but rather one of four emergency scenarios presented at the 2012 International CES in mid-January to demonstrate how an extension of the Emergency Alert System that takes advantage of newly emerging Mobile DTV transmission system could help warn and direct the public to safety in times of emergency.

Backwards-compatible with the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV standard, M-EAS is currently in the first phase of a trial involving funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; PBS; public broadcasters WGBH in Boston, Vegas PBS and Alabama Public Television; Harris; LG Electronics; and Roundbox.

Jim Kutzner, chief engineer of PBS, who spearheaded the CES demonstration and is taking a lead role in the M-EAS trial, says that the success of the new standard will rely upon the acceptance of both the public and commercial broadcasters.

“We have already started trying to be as inclusive of commercial broadcasters and others as we are of public broadcasters,” Kutzner says. “This can't just be a public TV thing. It has to be suitable for all TV stations.”

At the 2012 NAB Show in Las Vegas, April 16-19, Kutzner plans to expand the awareness of broadcasters about M-EAS by running similar emergency scenarios and transmitting M-EAS warnings for show attendees to see.

For the CES demo, Kutzner enlisted Fisher Broadcasting VP of technology Brian McHale and the company's flagship station KOMO-TV in Seattle for help.

“KOMO, our ABC affiliate, created a scenario about what would occur if a tsunami came ashore in downtown Seattle,” McHale says.

The station built warning graphics and text-based alert information as well as put together follow-up revisions to identify the precise areas where the tsunami would come ashore. It created warnings to evacuate to higher ground and other emergency information to assist the public as it evacuated the area, he says.

“We also gave viewers a chance to see maps of the areas impacted, and provided earthquake information and warnings about specific communities most at risk,” McHale adds. “We walked through the whole scenario of what would happen.”

The tsunami scenario, along with other M-EAS warnings — including a tornado scenario from WGBH, an Amber Alert scenario created by Alabama Public Television and a warning about a suspicious package found at the Las Vegas Convention Center — were broadcast by Vegas PBS (KLVX) to LG Electronics handsets equipped with Mobile DTV receivers and special software to decode the M-EAS messages.

M-EAS offers several powerful advantages, including the one-to-many architecture of the mobile broadcast; the ability to receive timely, critical warnings while on the move; and access to technologies previously unavailable to broadcasters, such as geo-targeting and delivery of non-real-time (NRT) data that can supplement warnings with other valuable information. To notify Mobile DTV viewers that an emergency situation is developing, M-EAS also provides for display of a message of up to 90 characters in length in an on-screen banner.

For the ongoing trial, Kutzner has identified five goals:

  • Determining the feasibility of delivering emergency information to mobile receivers;
  • Developing the core technology needed to make M-EAS a reality;
  • Identifying the implementation costs to add basic M-EAS capability at TV stations;
  • Ensuring the system is simple for broadcasters to deploy and the public to use; and
  • Developing acceptance among emergency managers on the federal and local level.

While the M-EAS trial is ongoing and not due to wrap up until the end of May, early indications reveal the project is on track to achieve its goals, Kutzner says. For example, in Las Vegas at the 2012 International CES, the tsunami, tornado, Amber Alert and suspicious device emergency scenarios gave the public the chance to interact with M-EAS-enabled mobile DTV handsets and its GUI.

Similarly, deployment of M-EAS at the three PBS trial participants is helping Kutzner gauge the ease with which the system can be deployed at stations and even helping to raise awareness of the system among emergency managers, he says. To that end, public broadcaster WGBH in Boston demonstrated M-EAS to state and local emergency management officials on March 5.

Between now and the end of May when the first phase of the M-EAS trial ends, Kutzner will be focused on discussing the overall infrastructure necessary to make M-EAS a reality, and the 2012 NAB Show in Las Vegas, April 14-19, will provide a forum for broader input.

“I want to include a lot of broadcasters in the discussion of how this gets put together,” he says.

At this point, Kutzner says, he is reluctant to put a dollar amount on deployment of M-EAS at the station level because it is still so early in the process. However, he does say the cost should be “a small fraction” of the estimated $100,000 to add Mobile DTV service.

Currently, there is no defined second phase for the trial, Kutzner says. However, if the trial goes on beyond May, some of the issues likely to be addressed will include how rich data gets assembled and inserted into M-EAS messaging, ways to ensure a base system can automatically generate emergency messages based on triggers generated by FEMA or state sources, and whether or not emergency messages are pre-generated and triggered for playout when needed.

Phil Kurz regularly reports on the broadcast industry and is the writer of Broadcast Engineering's “RF Update” e-newsletter.

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.