FCC Votes to Boost Emergency Alerts With Links, Better Targeting

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When New York and New Jersey officials were searching for the suspected Chelsea bomber recently, they sent out an alert to area smartphones that urged residents to be on the lookout for a specific individual. The alert included his name and age, but told people to "See media for pic."

The man's photo was everywhere, so it wasn't that hard to find. But it still struck some as odd that in 2016, when we can seemingly do everything with our phones, that emergency alerts did not support photos.

Emergency AlertThe Federal Communications Commission this week took steps to change that when it approved new rules for the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system that, among other things, requires carriers to supports links to photos.

The update will also allow for messages with 360 characters (up from 90) over 4G LTE networks; embedded phone numbers that you can tap to call; messages that are targeted to more granular geographic areas; and Spanish-language alerts.

The agency also wants a new class of alerts, known as Public Safety Messages, that will help residents in local emergencies, like emergency shelter locations or a boil water order. State and local authorities will also be able to better test WEAs, train personnel, and raise public awareness about the service.

Right now, WEAs are issued for messages from the president, Amber Alerts, and alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life. Mobile users are not charged for receiving WEAs; they are automatically enrolled to receive them, though they can turned off in a phone's settings.

"Since its launch in 2012, Wireless Emergency Alerts have notified Americans via their cell phones about severe weather, missing children, and other emergencies. These notifications have, quite simply, saved lives," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "With these new rules, we are taking action to make this life-saving service even more useful by incorporating lessons learned from the first four years of service and by levering technological advances."

Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, however expressed concern about "requiring participating wireless providers to add functions that are not based on what can reasonably be achieved with existing technology in realistic timelines."

Carriers have 12 to 30 months to complete these upgrades. O'Rielly says "42 months or 24 months from the completion of all relevant standards, whichever is earlier...is a far more reasonable timeframe.

"We also need to consider that standards bodies have their hands full right now preparing for nextgeneration technologies," he continued. "I certainly wouldn't want to see 5G deployments stuck on the sidelines in order to incorporate not-ready WEA solutions into the development of 5G networks and devices."

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, however, argued that "time is of the essence" when it comes to improving WEAs.

The order will be open to public comment.

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