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Too Much Information

ESTABLISHING A SYSTEM for sending urgent messages to the public in a crisis has been one of the U.S. government’s top post-9-11 goals. Now, the government is getting closer to ironing out a system that will allow it to do just that. It’s called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).

CMAS is not a mandatory program; Commercial Mobile Service (CMS) providers, such as AT&T, can elect not to participate. If they opt out, however, they must tell their subscribers and potential subscribers that they’re not in the system.

Many carriers have thus far opted in, says Robert Kenny, spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—the agency charged with promulgating and enforcing the rules governing CMAS. Among the major providers that have signed on are AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, TMobile, Alltel, Leap Wireless, and MetroPCS.

“We believe that this will serve as an effective means to provide individuals and families who are traveling to receive emergency-related information anywhere, anytime,” says Derek Poarch, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief at the FCC.

CMAS alerts will cover the following: (1) a message from the President of the United States or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the direction of the President, which might occur, for example, during a terrorist attack or an incident that threatens national security; (2) national or regional imminent threats, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, nuclear leaks, and earthquakes; and (3) Amber Alerts, which are bulletins about missing and abducted children.

According to the FCC, the national alerts will go out to all subscribers, while regional and Amber Alerts will be tied to specific geographic regions.

Some observers worry that the alert categories could generate too many alerts for a public that’s already over-loaded with various alerts and data. Psychologist and communications expert Lilli Friedland warns that the system could be rendered useless if the public decides to regard its messages as spam.

“[CMAS] needs to be used judiciously, not often, and not by too many agencies, or else it will really go against the purpose of having such a level of communication out there,” emphasizes Friedland, who is president of Los Angeles-based consulting group Executive Advisors.

For these alerts to stand out, the government “has to really be able to represent that this is a rare and unusually important piece of information that you need to have,” she says.

If, however, the system is used wisely, it has the potential to make the public feel that government is being open and communicative in a crisis. “If it comes from the top, they feel like the system is trying to be transparent and trying to help them know what’s happening,” says Friedland. “So it has very positive morale factors, information factors; it breeds retention, loyalty, and a quicker response to crises.”

One controversial aspect of the system is who will bear the cost. Consumer groups have argued that there should be no price impact on subscribers, while wireless groups want the ability to recoup the costs of implementing the system and sending out alerts.

The FCC has decided that the basic development costs can be passed on to users in service rate plans, but there can’t be a per-message usage fee. “Wireless carriers may seek to recover costs strictly for the development of the infrastructure as well as for upgrades to networks for the purpose of providing text alerts. They cannot charge subscribers for the text alerts themselves,” says Poarch.

If a provider drops out of CMAS, its customers may end their contract with the company without the normal penalties.

The CMAS implementation timeline is not yet clear; the FCC has issued governing regulations, but it declined to include any deadlines for wireless providers.

One barrier to implementation is that FEMA has been designated in the “aggregator/gateway role” for CMAS, and the agency has not yet designed the government interface that will be used by CMAS participants to send out alerts. The FCC stated in its rules that if FEMA does not issue specifications on the government interface by the end of 2008, the FCC will convene an emergency meeting of the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee “to address the issuance” of those specifications.

CMAS was created by the Warning, Alert, and Responsive Network (WARN) Act of 2006, which was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) in response to the White House’s report on lessons learned by the poor response to Hurricane Katrina.

The need for mobile alerts was reinforced by the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, where 33 died, as well as by the various 2008 tornadoes in the United States, which killed more than 120 people and made it the deadliest year for tornadoes since 1998, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.