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Emergency Alert inertia

Thu, 09/30/2004 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

You probably noticed that the FCC, a few months ago, made a final decision in the digital must-carry proceeding. The FCC decided that the law does not require cable operators to carry both a broadcaster’s analog and digital programs, but only one or the other. And the law does not require cable operators to carry all the programs in a broadcaster’s multi-program multiplex, but only the “primary” program. And this decision only took four years from the FCC’s last must-carry ruling.

Jeffrey Krauss
But the proceeding isn’t finished. There were other issues in the proceeding that the FCC did not deal with. These include “program relatedness” and “material degradation.” It will probably take another two to fours years for the FCC’s must-carry appetite to build up again. Meanwhile, here’s a refresher course.

The law says that a cable operator’s must-carry obligations extend only to material in the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI) that is “related” to the TV program currently being carried. Digital TV signals don’t have a VBI, so the FCC must decide how to interpret that requirement in the context of digital TV. Some cable operators argue that any “program-related” information is not part of the “primary” program, and so no “program-related” information is entitled to carriage. Most, though, are willing to accept a narrow definition so that information that is an integral part of the current program would be carried. This would include closed captioning and video descriptions for the hearing impaired, and foreign language audio tracks. Broadcasters want a broad definition, to include such things as enhanced interactive advertising content, zoned newscasts or emergency information, the interactive purchase of items related to the current program, and sporting events shot with multiple, user-selectable camera angles. In that interpretation, with a standard definition program that takes up, say, 4 Mbps, this other information could take up the entire rest of the 19 Mbps channel!

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is “outdated.” At least, that’s what FCC Commissioner Adelstein says in his statement on the FCC’s new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) reviewing the EAS. Commissioner Martin says that “we need either to update this system or replace it with a more comprehensive and effective digital warning mechanism.” And Commissioner Copps is pleased that the FCC will “accelerate action” and “work aggressively” on improving the dissemination of emergency information. But not everyone is so gung-ho. FCC Chairman Powell plans to use the proceeding as merely “one of many vehicles by which we collectively explore the most effective mechanism for warning the American public of an emergency.” And when you take a close look at the NPRM, you see that it is indeed a vehicle–a vehicle for words, not a vehicle for action.

The FCC did a major overhaul in 1994 when it replaced the Emergency Broadcast System with the Emergency Alert System, and required cable systems to participate. Wireless cable systems were added in 1997. Part 11 of the FCC Rules contains the detailed requirements, including technical specifications for the decoders that broadcast stations and cable operators must have, details of the EAS message protocol, lists of codes denoting specific types of (mostly weather-related) emergencies and periodic testing procedures. Additional codes for non-weather emergencies (e.g., child abductions) were added in 2002.

And the technology? Think in terms of audio tones and 1,200 baud data channels. Not exactly advanced technology, even for 1994.

Circumstances have changed, and I agree that the FCC must do its part for Homeland Security. But the NPRM could have been a bit more aggressive. The first thing you notice is that while it is called a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC never proposed any rules! Very unusual. In the normal course of events, an NPRM would have an attachment that lists the new rules that are being proposed. But this document has no specific proposals, only questions seeking information. In the normal course of events, this document would have been called a Notice of Inquiry, not a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. But I guess it’s too close to election time for events to take a normal course.

There are two specific elements in the NPRM that caught my eye. In paragraph 29 of the NPRM, the FCC asks a bunch of questions relating to digital broadcasting, and whether digital technology might be used to improve emergency warnings. But the FCC seems to think that digital cable television systems do not carry EAS warnings. Wrong. If you go to the SCTE Web site and download the SCTE 18 2003 standard, you will see that the cable industry has defined a messaging protocol for delivering EAS warnings as part of the digital program stream. New set-top boxes and cable-ready receivers will take this messaging stream and follow its commands to either display a message, sound a tone, do a forced channel change to an information channel, or take some other action. This was all part of the Plug & Play agreement that was ratified by the FCC last year. The FCC needs a reminder.

The other element that caught my eye was the FCC’s discussion of a proposal from Partnership for Public Warning, a coalition of government and non-government organizations whose goal is improved dissemination of emergency warnings. The FCC encouraged commenters to take into account PPW’s assessment, namely “PPW asserts that any new public warning system design should take advantage of the existing EAS infrastructure and should be able to accommodate existing EAS equipment in place, noting that it would be difficult to replace or rebuild such a capability today at a reasonable cost.”

Let me get this straight. In just a few years, all the TV broadcast stations will be digital, they will all have Internet connectivity, they will all broadcast data streams at 19 Mbps, but you’re telling me they need to retain the EAS infrastructure that relies on audio tones and 1,200 baud data streams? Gimme a break. I’m sympathetic to the financial limitations of small cable systems, and they continue to deserve special consideration, because installing new headend technology for every channel could be a terrible burden.

But that concern applies to delivering warnings to the home. The PPW proposal is for distributing the warnings to broadcast stations and cable headends. I wonder whether this “least common denominator” approach to infrastructure is best for the country.

The FCC NPRM also contains a hodge-podge of questions about broadening EAS to include other technologies and services, such as DBS, digital cellular networks and wireline telephones. It contains questions about various data transmission protocols, and how they might be used for carrying emergency warning information. And finally, it asks about ways to improve the delivery of emergency warnings to people with disabilities, and to foreign language audiences. The questions in this document are all worthwhile questions, but they are posed in such a neutral manner that it suggests that the FCC doesn’t have a clue about what the answers should be.

All in all, it’s hardly the basis for the aggressive action that Commissioner Copps is hoping for.

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