FCC Extends EAS Rules and Seeks Comments on Improving Current System
As indicated in an earlier update (dated November 9, 2005), the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) announced that it was extending existing Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) obligations applicable to analog broadcasters and cable systems to digital communications systems, including digital television (“DTV”), digital audio broadcasting (“DAB”), digital cable, direct broadcast satellite (“DBS”) and satellite digital audio radio service (“SDARS”) providers. The new rules become effective December 31, 2006 for DTV, DAB, digital cable and SDARS providers, and May 31, 2007 for DBS. The FCC has released the text of its First Report and Order (“R&O”) and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”) providing additional details about its new rules and about its plans for EAS going forward. Comments are due January 24, 2006, and replies February 23, 2006.
I. FCC Report & Order
In expanding the EAS rules to cover digital systems and services, the Commission did not alter the basic structure of EAS – carriage of national EAS messages is required and participation in state and local EAS messages remains voluntary. The Commission also clarified some of the new requirements applicable to digital platforms:
- Digital cable systems, defined as “the portion of a cable system that delivers channels in digital format to subscribers at the input of a Unidirectional Digital Cable Product or other navigation device,” will have the same EAS obligations as analog cable systems. While all systems with 5,000 or more subscribers must deliver audio and video EAS messages on all channels, digital cable systems can choose between “force-tuning” all viewers to one channel and separately transmitting messages on all digital channels. As with analog cable systems, digital cable systems with fewer than 5,000 subscribers must provide video interruption and an audio alert on all channels and the EAS message on at least one channel.
- DTV and DAB broadcasters will have the same EAS obligations as analog broadcasters but must also transmit EAS messages on all program and audio streams, including subscription-based streams. DTV broadcasters can also choose between “force-tuning” all viewers to one channel and separately transmitting massages on all program streams as long as all viewers at least receive the EAS message on the channel they are watching.
- SDARS licensees such as XM Radio and Sirius are required to transmit national level EAS messages on all channels while participation in state and local EAS alerts is voluntary. However, SDARS licensees must inform their customers of the channels that will and will not be capable of supplying state and local EAS messages by providing the information on their websites and in annual notices.
- DBS providers must distribute national EAS messages on all channels by discontinuing regular programming and also pass through all EAS messages aired on local channels to subscribers receiving those channels. Although DBS providers’ participation in state and local EAS activations is otherwise voluntary, the FCC recommends that DBS providers be capable of receiving and distributing state and local EAS messages from state and local emergency managers and if unable to do so, they must inform customers on their websites and in annual notices. The FCC decided that legacy C-Band Home Satellite Dish providers will not be required to participate in carrying national EAS alerts due to the heavy burden in light of the continued decline in C-Band subscribers.
II. FCC Further Rulemaking
In its FNPRM, the FCC seeks comment on a variety of issues in furtherance of its goal to expedite the development of a more comprehensive fully integrated state of the art digitally based alert and warning system, including:
- Whether telephone companies that are deploying new video delivery systems should have public alert and warning responsibilities similar to cable and other communications providers;
- Whether public alert and warning responsibilities should be extended to wireless carriers and if so, whether a common messaging protocol for wireless messages would be necessary;
- Whether the current distribution system is flawed and whether EAS messages instead should be distributed directly to media outlets from the initial source rather than through the current “daisy chain” relay system;
- Whether other distribution models, such as the Internet or satellite-based systems (such as the one being developed by PBS for its stations) should play a role in distributing emergency alerts;
- Whether a common messaging protocol should be adopted for a digital alert and warning system to be distributed simultaneously over multiple platforms;
- Whether in light of Hurricane Katrina and reported EAS failures, transmission of state EAS messages should be required;
- Whether EAS alerts should be made more accessible to people with disabilities, including the use of enhanced audio, closed and open captioning, crawls, and scrolls;
- Whether rules need to be adopted for making alerts more meaningful to non-English speaking persons; and
- Whether performance standards (timing and accuracy of messages), reporting obligations, and testing requirements need to be adopted.
If you would like more detail on EAS requirements or to discuss potential comments, please contact us.