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IN THE LOOP: EAS: Act locally, think regionally

Wed, 04/30/2008 - 8:10pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

As cable communications systems have evolved from solo headends to master headend and hub configurations and then to regional super headends, the concept of the local emergency override seems to have gotten lost in the complexity of it all.

Thomas G. RobinsonThe original local emergency overrides go back to the glory days of cable franchising when cable operators touted them as being a critical component of an emergency notification system that would set their system’s capabilities apart from others desiring to cable unwired areas, thus being part of the reason for choosing them over another franchisee. A number of these promises were kept, and emergency override systems were put into place to either override the audio, or audio and video, and allow the emergency operations directors of local franchising authorities to take over the cable system for a brief period of time and notify subscribers of local alerts. This could include hazardous materials spills on a highway within the franchise area or ruptured gas lines in a specific subdivision. As government access channels came on line, subs could then be directed to turn to those for more information.

Over time, a number of things happened to alter the way in which these systems were able to be utilized. First, digital cable channels were developed and added to the lineup. The way that they were encoded and distributed presented new challenges for modifying systems which had been developed for overriding analog channels.

Then, system configurations started to change. Master headends were developed in metro and regional areas where some channels, specific to certain franchising areas, were locally inserted at a hub. This now required both channels at the master headend as well as those specific to a given hub to be overridden when necessary, thus requiring further alterations to initial override systems. Further, as such regional systems were developed, there were sometimes differing emergency override requirements in different franchises that would now need to be melded in some form concerning overriding channels that were distributed from the master headend across the entire region.

Finally, changes in regulations related to national, state and local Emergency Alert Systems (EAS) also served to modify how local override systems were implemented and utilized. In part, these regulations ensured that local overrides could be preempted by federal alerts, and established a hierarchy for precedence in the alerting system. For example, many state plans were adopted that established hierarchies at the state level, including local emergency plan areas where groups of local governments on a county-wide or region-wide level (thus covering multiple franchises in many cases) were required to cooperate under local plans that would be established for those areas.

Throughout all these changes, the importance of being able to issue specific, local emergency messages was affirmed. For example, the FCC in its Third Report and Order on EAS Rules (FCC 98-329) indicated that, “The record in this proceeding continues to support our findings that franchising officials are most familiar with local conditions and threats to their communities as well as the types of emergency information needed to respond to such threats. They are also best suited to work within their communities to develop state and local emergency alerting plans.”

The key question is, as cable systems continue to evolve into larger regional operations (and super-regional operations), while at the same time the critical need for truly local emergency information continues to be heightened, how do we successfully meld the two objectives? Many in the cable industry believe that the appropriate way to address the issue is to have the local franchising authority, consistent with its local plan, issue an alert through the Local Primary which would then, based on the code assigned within the EAS system, enable a message specific to that local initiating authority to override the cable system and direct subscribers where to turn for more information.

This response, though, only serves to establish a scenario where subscribers to a large regional system will be confused by an alert meant for only a segment of viewers and does not attempt to find a new technical solution that would better meet the localization requirements of governments and their citizens. For example, knowing that the citizenry is highly mobile these days, many local governments are now investing in a variety of different forms of emergency notification as part of a Reverse 911 system. This includes use of the EAS system, initiation of local overrides as available, use of broadcast e-mail notification and telephone call-out systems to those who are deemed to be in affected areas, and the recent addition of emergency text messages.

With the addressability of today’s cable systems, especially as we move into an all-digital world, it would seem that localized alerts, best suited to a targeted population, could be directed to specific households based on the addressability of their devices. This would follow the pattern of what local governments are building as part of Reverse 911. This also gets us closer to the intent of the original and still highly valued local emergency override concept.

robinson@cbgcommunications.com

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