Jumat, 15 Agustus 2008

Federally supervised cell phone alerts about national emergencies came one step closer to reality Thursday when regulators released their final rules for how mobile providers must implement the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).

CMAS is a voluntary system available to wireless providers that will send text out message blasts in the event of a national disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Though providers are not required to join the CMAS, major providers like Verizon, AT imminent threat alerts and child abduction emergency or Amber alerts.

Initial implementation of the system is not expected until at least April 2010. Providers have until October 2008 to complete a CMAS industry standard, while development and testing will be conducted from October 2008 to October 2010, the FCC said.

The system has its origins in the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act, a bill Congress passed in 2006 as part of a larger port security bill. It allocated $106 million to create the voluntary, national emergency alert system.

Since then, the FCC has been working with wireless carriers as part of the Commercial Service Alert Advisory Committee (CMSAAC) to develop recommendations for how to execute CMAS. The FCC adopted an initial framework for CMAS in April and adopted further rules for educational and public broadcasting stations in July.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pledged in late May to be the federal agency in charge of sending out the alerts, but not without some controversy. FEMA initially refused to coordinate the CMAS, prompting a public tongue lashing from the FCC commissioners.

The FCC did not take on that role itself because it did not have experience with originating emergency alerts; had received federal funds for operating an emergency alert system (as FEMA has); and did not have statutory authority to borrow money against the DTV Transition Fund to implement the WARN Act, as the Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce have, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said in April.

So far, FEMA has no concrete plans for the CMAS, but if they do not provide the FCC with specifications about the system by December 31, 2008, the FCC will convene an emergency CMSAAC meeting to address the issue, the order said.

But what does this mean for the average cell phone user?

Though most of the major providers are currently on board to participate in CMAS, it is not a done deal, and they have the option to back out at any point.

The FCC said Thursday that providers must notify the agency within 30 days about whether or not it will participate in the CMAS. If they opt out, providers will have to notify potential and current customers that they are not participating, but the FCC left it to the provider as to how that notification should occur.

Customers of providers who opt out will not receive alerts until 60 days before the CMAS is operational, or approximately February 2010.

"We believe the relevance of this decision may be lost if notification is delivered to prospective and existing customers too far in advance of CMAS commercial availability," according to the FCC order.

If you are a customer of a provider that opts out or signs up and then backs out, you can cancel your service without incurring a penalty or an early termination fee, the FCC said.

Similarly, if you subscribe to a service that will be provider alerts, you cannot opt out of presidential alerts, but can select not to receive "imminent threat" texts or Amber alert notifications.

As for the cost, providers are banned from imposing a "separate or additional charge" specifically for the CMAS, but they "have the discretion to absorb service-related costs" and pass those on to customers. So essentially, wireless customers will not see a separate "CMAS Fee" on their bill, but their providers reserve the right to up their monthly fees to recoup the costs associated with CMAS.


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