FCC Expands Rules Requiring Carriage of Emergency Alerts
At the meeting on November 3, 2005, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) adopted a First Report and Order (“R&O”) that expands the Commission’s current Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) rules to require digital video and audio service providers, including those providing digital broadcasts, digital cable, DBS and satellite radio, to carry national EAS alerts. Although the text of the R&O is not yet available, the Commission explained at the meeting that its action was an important step in ensuring that consumers using new digital media services have access to the these alerts. All affected service providers (with the exception of DBS) must comply with the new requirements by December 31, 2006. DBS carriers have an additional five months until May 31, 2007 for technical reasons.
The FCC also adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) (no text yet) seeking comment on ways to improve the current system and develop a “next-generation alert and warning system that takes full advantage of digital media’s potential.” Recent hurricanes and the threat of terrorism have created a political climate where the FCC sees the need to act to establish a comprehensive alert system that adequately addresses public safety and homeland security efforts. The FCC will be seeking comment on how certain new technologies not covered in the R&O, particularly wireless devices such as cell phones, pagers, and PDAs, can be integrated into the alert system and what new system architectures and common protocols should be required for the next generation system. The FCC will also be seeking comment on whether and how to expand EAS requirements to phone companies that are planning to offer high definition digital content over fiber optic connections and how EAS can be structured to accommodate individuals with vision or hearing disabilities and individuals whose primary fluency is in a language other than English.
Although the FCC’s current rules only require carriage of national EAS messages, the FCC will be seeking comment on issues related to state and local governments’ current participation in EAS and possibly expanding such participation to include requiring the carriage of emergency messages from state governors. This could be an opportunity for cable operators to address concerns about some over-reaching local franchising authorities that seek to impose burdensome local EAS requirements without following the current state and local area EAS plans that the FCC has approved.
The FCC’s EAS announcement follows on the heels of the Senate Commerce Committee’s passage of the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act (“WARN Act”) on October 20, 2005. The WARN Act would require the creation of a new, enhanced emergency alert system, or “all hazards alert system” to “complement[ ], rather than duplicate[ ], the current emergency alert system.” It would also require the system be designed to “provide alerts over a diverse a group of media as possible,” including mobile phones and blackberrys and digital and analog broadcast, cable, and satellite television and radio technologies. The WARN Act would require the carriage of state governors’ messages and would include a credentialing process to enable public officials with responsibility for issuing safety warnings to access the system. Significantly, the WARN Act would provide the FCC with almost no regulatory authority over the new system. Instead it would create a new “National Program Office” to be housed in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to implement and oversee the new system.
We will update you when the text of the R&O and the NPRM becomes available. We will also continue to monitor the progression of the WARN Act and keep you informed of any important related developments. Please let us know if you are interested in participating in the submission of formal comments to the FCC.