PBS Stations on the Alert for Emergency Systems

The 2006 Warning Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act finally heads toward implementation this year, but some stations are already looking beyond the system, which includes provisions for wireless carriers to deliver short alerts to mobile devices.

In the coming weeks, several PBS stations around the country will be holding demonstrations before local and regional emergency management officials of a pilot Mobile-Emergency Alert System (M-EAS) using mobile DTV broadcasters.

As part of these tests, which are not part of the implementation of the WARN Act, WGBH Boston, for example, will broadcast material about a tornado to mobile devices. In addition, PBS Las Vegas (KLVX) will issue alerts on the discovery of a suspicious package found in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the Alabama Public TV stations WBIQ in Birmingham and WAIQ in Montgomery will demonstrate an Amber Alert for a missing child.

The alerts will begin with a short text of less than 90 characters that uses the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) message format.

These messages are similar to the alerts that would be delivered under the implementation of the WARN Act this year, with wireless carriers sending alerts to mobile devices and PBS stations acting as a redundant path by sending the messages out on their regular digital broadcasts. But the M-EAS pilot is designed to show that mobile DTV broadcast alerts could go far beyond that, using ATSC’s proposed non-real-time standard to broadcast rich media—evacuation maps, images, video clips, HTML pages showing possible tornado paths, graphics, lists of survivors at hospitals and other information—to mobile devices.

“In Japan during the Tsunami, the cell networks went down, and mobile broadcasts were the only source of information for many people,” notes Jim Kutzner, senior director of advanced technology at PBS, who believes mobile DTV alerts could play a crucial role in U.S. emergency efforts.

Implementing this new idea could take years. Unlike Japan, where most phones can get mobile broadcasts, only a handful of mobile DTV-capable devices are currently available in the U.S.

But the tests will have some important shortterm implications for the broadcast industry. Organizers of the pilot project are planning to propose some changes in the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV standard in the late spring, allowing mobile DTV devices to receive the alerts, a step that would encourage device manufacturers to incorporate the capability as they roll out new devices.

Feedback from the tests by local and regional emergency officials could also help improve the system and provide an important base of support for mobile DTV broadcasts and the broadcast industry as it battles FCC proposals to reallocate and reduce broadcast spectrum.

Wayne C. Luplow, VP at the Zenith R&D Lab, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of LG Electronics USA Inc., says LG had proposed the idea of the pilot to PBS. As part of the effort, which is being co-funded by LG and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harris and Roundbox played a signifi cant role, supplying transmission equipment and components for the broadcasts.

In preparation for the demos, Harris and Roundbox worked on adapting the transmission system to handle the CMAS alerts, and LG engineers modified mobile devices so they could receive the messages.

Noting that the M-EAS pilot is not part of the WARN Act or CMAS implementations, both Luplow and Kutzner stress their belief that it could nonetheless complement those efforts by allowing users to receive much more comprehensive information and by offering a more robust delivery system than cell networks, which tend to crash under the high traffic that naturally comes with emergencies.

The new system is also relatively inexpensive. Kutzner says broadcasters can deploy mobile DTV transmissions for under $100,000 and could offer alerts by adding “a small server with some software on it. That would cost only a small percentage of getting on the air with mobile.”

The rich media delivery was already part of the ATSC proposed non-real-time standard, so the only change would involve adapting the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV standard to handle the CMAS text alerts.

Kutzner expects they will deliver the proposed changes to ATSC in May and believes the new standard would be backward-compatible to existing devices.

A number of commercial broadcasters have also expressed a great deal of interest in the M-EAS system, and Kutzner notes that Fisher Communications’ KOMO station in Seattle had developed a demo for the delivery of a tsunami alert.

“Even though we are starting out with public broadcasters, it certainly isn’t limited to public stations,” Luplow says. “And over time, we expect to branch out with commercial broadcasters.”

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