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Alert system ready, but will it be only a test?

Originally published in Current, May 1, 2006
By Jeremy Egner

A digital emergency alert system using the public TV satellite system and local DTV transmitters could be operating along at least part of the Gulf Coast in time for the 2006 hurricane season, APTS President John Lawson told an FCC panel.

“We could roll out the transmission side relatively quickly,” Lawson said. Weather watchers consider that the hurricane season begins June 1.

But APTS is still waiting to see if the Department of Homeland Security comes through with the money to fuel a national rollout of the project later this month or in early June.
APTS also seeks federal funding for expansion of the alert system to allow state and local emergency managers to use public TV digital datacasting capability to warn the public of regional emergencies, Lawson said. A bill that would create local grants and provide at least $200 million in support for research and equipment for a national digital alert system — S. 1753, the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act — is currently stalled in the Senate.

Lawson appeared April 18 [2006] before an FCC-appointed independent panel reviewing Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the communications and media infrastructure. The panel will report back to the FCC by June 15 with recommendations on how to improve disaster preparedness, network reliability and communication among first responders.

The APTS president demonstrated the digital alert system to the panel, an ad hoc collection of relief group leaders, telecom execs and Gulf region emergency first responders.

Public TV’s system, launched as a pilot in October 2004, is designed to supplement the national analog Emergency Alert System by using the PBS satellite system to relay federal emergency messages — general alerts, maps, evacuation routes — for local datacasting on stations’ digital channels. Relief workers, first responders and the general public will receive the alerts on TV sets, radios, PCs and various cell phones and wireless devices (article from 2004). In addition to APTS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (part of DHS), partners in the project include XM Satellite Radio and assorted cable companies and wireless providers.

Messages would travel via local circuits from DHS to Washington’s WETA, the primary transmitting station, and be carried along the DTV bitstream to other stations and then its target audience.

The addressable system allows sensitive messages to be received only by selected groups such as first responders. Because the information is carried on a wireless DTV signal, according to APTS, it would survive downed phone lines, power outages, jammed cellular networks and computer hackers.

The project’s first phase focused primarily on the region surrounding Washington D.C., and involved five pubTV stations in addition to PBS and the commercial partners. The second phase expanded the system to include 17 additional stations across the U.S. and coordinated the pilot with other alert projects and vendors to ensure interoperability. APTS and FEMA also developed a national rollout plan for the system.

“I want to commend you and public television for using the spectrum in the public interest,” FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein told Lawson after the demo. “This is another good example of public television’s dedication to the communities you serve.”

APTS is eager to extend that dedication further, but it is currently waiting to hear how much funding is available from DHS before committing to an official national rollout, says spokeswoman Kristin Wilson. The system will be ready to go in 24 stations by May 22, but APTS is waiting for DHS to pony up additional funds.

“We’re hopeful that we will receive funding for the national rollout before the beginning of hurricane season,” Wilson says.

“I’m just waiting for the ‘go’ order,” says Ed Czarnecki, v.p. of Spectrarep, the datacasting firm that provides the technology and operational support for the system.
DHS reps did not return calls for comment in time for Current’s deadline.

Pubcasters such as New York’s WNET, Kentucky ETV, Nashville PTV and the New Jersey Network, among others, have already begun local public safety datacasting networks.

The national system uses the Common Alert Protocol, a Internet Protocol open standard that makes the network interoperable with local networks and allows alerts to pass through to multiple devices “with little or no intervention or reformatting” by individual wireless or cable service providers, Czarnecki says.

The net result is that people in the path of a hurricane, for example, would be able to receive alerts from both FEMA and regional emergency managers on any satellite radio, PC or IP-equipped mobile phone without conflicts among the signals.

“Ultimately, we’re talking about a nationwide deployment, not just the 24 stations that are part of this first rollout,” Czarnecki says. “But even as it stands now, FEMA has entirely new real-time information distribution capability that didn’t exist during last hurricane season.”

APTS is planning an event for May 22 or June 1 to promote either the official rollout, funding permitting, or a public demonstration of the digital alert system.             

Web page posted June 20, 2006
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2006


A growing number of public TV stations expect datacasting will become both a public service and a revenue source, 2004.

Stations, APTS and FEMA begin a pilot project trying DTV in a national emergency alert system, October 2004.


Stations in Rochester, Las Vegas and elsewhere find they have something that public safety agencies want: spectrum.


APTS President John Lawson testifies at the FCC about the proposed national all-hazards alert and public warning system involving pubTV stations. [Full text PDF.]

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