NAB Comments on EAS Alerting Paradigm NPRM

On June 8 NAB filed comments on an FCC Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in PS Docket No. 15-94 regarding proposals to modify the Emergency Alert System (EAS). The 75 page NPRM sought comment on many different proposals for establishing what the FCC calls a new EAS paradigm (factoid: there were over 400 question marks in the NPRM and the phase “seeks comment” appears over 200 times.)

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In our comments, NAB applauded the Commission for its forethought in launching this proceeding regarding a new EAS paradigm. We did not comment on the proposed streamlining and contents of state EAS plans. For the time being, NAB deferred to the expertise of State Emergency Communications Committee (SECCs) members who prepare such plans. We believe that SECCs, as well as state broadcasting associations, state emergency managers and other local stakeholders can offer the most useful guidance for creating an efficient online process for state EAS plans, and the appropriate contents of such plans.

Regarding enhanced EAS testing and public awareness, NAB urged the FCC to avoid micromanagement of local efforts. For example, instead of mandating the frequency and parameters of EAS tests, we said that the Commission should simply provide local EAS stakeholders with the tools they need to conduct such tests, and then allow them the discretion to schedule and structure EAS tests consistent with the characteristics of the local population, geography and weather. Local emergency managers and SECCs are best positioned to decide how often to conduct live code EAS tests, or whether such tests are even necessary. Similarly, we told the FCC that they should not dictate whether EAS public service campaigns must include the live code, especially given the risks of triggering false alerts or mistakenly causing public confusion.

In addition, NAB was pleased that the FCC appears poised to modernize its rules permitting cable television providers to unilaterally force-tune consumers’ cable boxes to another cable channel during EAS events. We have long urged the Commission to recognize the folly of allowing cable operators to interrupt viewers’ access to the comprehensive and often life-saving emergency news provided by local television broadcasters, in favor of some designated cable channel that displays the barebones EAS message. Given that some cable operators have successfully implemented selective override or other processes that maintain access to broadcast stations, we believe that others can too.

“Use of machine-generated EAS alerts should remain voluntary, at least until such time the necessary technology is fully mature.”

NAB also supported wider dissemination of multilingual EAS alerts, and welcomed the recent project in Minnesota as a successful first step. However, we note that broadcasters still function primarily as passive conduits of EAS alerts that are originated and issued by emergency managers, and for the near future, should not be required to translate EAS alerts at the station level. Only a few months ago, the Commission found that alert originators are best positioned to effect multilingual alerting because broadcasters lack the capability, and this view remains correct.  We stated that machine-generated EAS alert translation is still a nascent technology, such that a premature mandate could diminish the accuracy, uniformity, and timeliness of EAS alerts. Therefore, use of machine-generated EAS alerts should remain voluntary, at least until such time the necessary technology is fully mature.

NAB stated that broadcasters are committed to safeguarding EAS. However, given the increasing cybersecurity risk to all IP-based communications systems, NAB supports the Commission’s efforts to enhance the security of EAS. Specifically, we agreed that EAS Participants should be required to demonstrate efforts to address EAS security based on industry best practices or reasonable alternative means. However, certain parts of the Commission’s approach may be unduly burdensome. For example, requiring an annual certification of EAS security as part of the new Electronic Test Reporting System (ETRS) underestimates the resources needed to perform a complete, accurate technical review of a station’s equipment and systems. Most broadcasters would have to hire an outside IT consultant to fulfill this obligation. A formal certification would also be subject broadcasters to potential Commission enforcement, which seems to contradict the Commission’s goal of allowing EAS Participants the flexibility to address EAS security as they see fit. Instead, the wiser course is to incorporate the recommended EAS security measures into the Commission’s Self-Inspection Checklists, and treat compliance like similar obligations imposed on broadcasters concerning the operational status of EAS equipment. We are further concerned that broadcasters will be unable to research, complete and file a report about a false EAS alert within thirty minutes of such an alert, as proposed in the NPRM. In many cases, thirty minutes will not allow stations to figure out the nature of a false alert, leading to incomplete or mistaken filings. Even more troublesome is the proposal to make the filing of such reports public, which may needlessly embarrass stations. NAB can discern no reason for an initial false alert report to be made public. Thus, the filing of such a report should be treated as presumptively confidential.

NAB generally supported enhancing the authentication of EAS messages. Although we are agnostic on how best to achieve improved authentication, we cautioned the FCC to consider the implications of any new mechanisms on consumer response to EAS alerts, and how to include authentication for alerts issued by the National Weather Service NOAA Weather Radio System. Most importantly, NAB urged the Commission to allow a longer, more flexible time frame for implementation of any authentication technology that might require the replacement of EAS equipment.

Finally, NAB offered a few observations concerning potential changes to the fundamental structure of EAS explored in the Notice. First, the Commission should avoid imposing any new obligations that would require broadcasters to purchase new EAS equipment. Second, the Commission should be wary of centralizing and virtualizing the EAS system in a way that produces a single point of failure. Third, one of the EAS system’s most attractive features is ease-of-use. Virtualization and similar changes could overly complicate the system, especially for smaller broadcasters and other EAS Participants with few IT resources. Finally, for the time being, NAB supports retaining the dual pathways provided by the legacy analog EAS system and the IP-based CAP-formatted IPAWS system. The two systems are complementary and provide critical redundancy, particularly during emergencies that disrupt Internet access.

A copy of NAB’s comments can be found here.

About the Author:

Kelly Williams is the Senior Director if Engineering and Technology Policy at the National Association of Broadcasters.