Federal regulators as early as today are expected to take a major step toward development of a nationwide emergency alert system that would send text messages to cellphones and other mobile devices wherever a crisis occurs.
Lack of a simple way to deliver vital warnings to residents has hindered emergency response in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, recent college-campus shootings, and a spate of devastating tornadoes in the Southeast in February.
The Federal Communications Commission is slated to establish technical standards and other requirements that for the first time would make such communication possible, two FCC officials say. The officials requested anonymity because commissioners have not yet voted on the plan.
Although wireless carriers would not be required to upgrade their networks to accommodate the alerts, those that agree to participate would have to implement the FCC's standards.
All four national cellphone providers -- AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile -- said they almost certainly will take part if the FCC adopts an advisory committee's recommendations on how the system would work. The agency is expected to approve those proposals, which, among other things, would initially limit warnings to the English language and 90 characters in length, officials say.
"We look forward to offering mobile emergency alerts to our customers," says Jim Bugel, assistant vice president of federal affairs for AT&T.
The network is expected to be up and running by 2010.
The FCC action is rooted in a 2006 federal law that ordered sweeping upgrades in the way emergency alerts are sent to mobile devices, land-line phones and broadcast TV stations.
With consumers increasingly relying on cellphones, "It is essential that we support and advance new ways to share critical, time-sensitive information with them in times of crisis," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says.
Today, many counties and law enforcement agencies can send warnings to mobile devices, but residents must sign up for the service. Plus, those who enlist receive alerts even if they're out of the affected area, while visitors who haven't joined don't get the news. Also, a separate missive must be sent to each resident, clogging the network and delaying the arrival of many alerts.
Under the planned system, a county, state or federal first responder would send an alert to a still-to-be-determined federal agency that would serve as a clearinghouse. That agency then would relay the alert to participating wireless carriers.
The messages would be broadcast on a single pathway to many users in the affected region, like a radio signal, avoiding the congestion that now afflicts such warnings. Few cellphones today can receive such messages, but most will be able to in three to five years, says Verizon Chief Technology Officer Tony Melone. Consumers with compliant phones would receive alerts unless they opt out.
The system could be used for a variety of incidents, such as severe weather, a terrorist threat or child abduction. A message could be sent to a county, region, state or the entire nation.