The current alerts, used for things like weather emergencies and Amber Alerts, only support text.
On Thursday, the Federal Communication adopted new rules to bolster the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, best known as that loud noise your phone makes when there's a flood in your general area. Launched in 2012, WEA got renewed attention, both positive and negative, with the less than stellar alert that was sent out after the Chelsea bombing in New York:
WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.
The new rules were actually proposed last November, even though the timing makes it easy to think that they're a response to the widespread ridicule of the Chelsea alert. The modifications are as follows:
- The maximum length has been increased from rom 90 characters to 360 (only for LTE and future networks)
- "Participating wireless providers" must support the addition of embedded phone numbers and URLs, so you can just click to see a photo and/or call the police.
- The same providers must send the alerts to more specific geographic areas, as the current implementation often leads to users getting largely irrelevant information.
- Support for Spanish-language alerts.
The new rules also establish a new type of alerts dubbed "Public Safety Messages," which explain "essential, recommended actions that can save lives or property." The examples given are the locations of emergency shelters and orders to boil water in the event of contamination.
There is also a pledge to "make it easier for state and local authorities to test WEA, train personnel, and raise public awareness about the service," but the FCC doesn't explain how this is being done.
Various technology companies and wireless carriers had objected to these changes. Apple, for example, expressed concern that "long alerts may inundate the user with information, leading to less user comprehension and increasing the likelihood of user opt-out." On the Spanish language front, Apple's letter implies that the FCC wants handset manufacturers to do machine translation on the device, saying that "iOS does not include an in-device functionality that automatically translates WEA messages." Besides," Apple claims, alerts should have "accurate and reliable translations, which are best provided by the alert originator."
AT&T, the second largest wireless carrier in the US behind Verizon Wireless, said that it was "agreeable to moving ahead with a time-limited trial on its wireless network for purposes of determining whether embedded URLs result in unmanageable congestion when included in Amber Alerts." However, the note added that the change "will affect 4G phones only and not 3G handsets," which is reflected in the new rules.
All in all, it appears to be a positive change. Here's to hoping it's used as little as possible.