Cable groups ask for 2-year window on emergency alert changes

A group representing small- and medium-size cable television operators is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a two-year moratorium if the regulator moves forward with adopting a proposal to change how emergency alert messages are broadcast for visually-impaired and hard-of-hearing individuals.

The request comes as the FCC considers amending its rules regarding the transmission of messages through the Emergency Alert System (EAS), with a specific focus on how those messages are transmitted visually and audibly.

Last year, officials at the FCC said they were considering updates to Part 11 of the commission's rules regarding EAS messages that would require broadcasters to update certain terminology regarding national emergency messages, use a pre-written script as the visual message for such alerts and to poll the national IPAWS emergency messaging system when a local or state message is transmitted to stations and cable operators.

Federal regulations require local cable operators to install equipment capable of receiving messages transmitted through the Emergency Alert System, even if they hold an authorization letter from the FCC waiving their participation in the program.

In a statement released last December, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the changes were needed because the public continued to rely on EAS messaging during inclement weather and other emergency situations.

"When EAS alerts are displayed on [television screens], they have both an audio component and a visual component," Rosenworcel said. "But because of the legacy television architecture of EAS, the audio component may not always match the visual text. This can mean that in some circumstances, less information may be conveyed to either those individuals who have access only to the visual component or to those who have access only to the audio component. It can cause real confusion."

Rosenworcel said the confusion can be greater for those who have certain disabilities, "who, it has been demonstrated, have greater difficulty preparing for and recovering from emergenc[ies] and disaster[s]."

The proposed rule would change the way EAS messages are delivered through text tickers, or "crawls," that are commonly displayed on broadcast and cable television during the transmission of an EAS message or test so that the text of the crawl offers better information about the type of message being sent.

ACA Connects

Last week, the trade organization ACA Connects filed a reply brief with the FCC saying its member operators participate in the EAS network, but warning that significant changes to how EAS messages are received and transmitted through their systems would be complex and has the potential to "introduce some risk of failure or malfunction."

"Though there may be room for improvement in this area, the EAS performs its core function — wide distribution of emergency alerts to the general public in both audio and visual formats — with a high degree of reliability," ACA Connects wrote in its brief.

ACA Connects did not say it was opposing the changes, but did request the FCC grant cable operators a two-year window to make changes to their equipment and methodology in order to comply with any changes that do come down the line. The two-year window was originally requested in separate comments filed by NCTA, a trade organization that represents larger cable providers and content programmers.

"A two-year implementation timeframe for cable operators would strike the right balance between improving the clarity and accessibility of EAS alerts and preserving the overall integrity of the system," the organization wrote.

Specifically, ACA Connects said some of its members would need to modify software in EAS encoding and decoding hardware in order to comply with the proposed changes, which would also need to be tested to ensure the messages can be delivered to cable television subscribers.

"As smaller operators with limited personnel and resources, [cable operators] would incur substantial burdens if they were required to complete such an extensive implementation process on an overly-aggressive schedule," ACA Connects wrote.

The group said its smaller member cable operators would be especially burdened if the FCC moves to enact the proposals on an aggressive schedule.

"These operators often have a heterogeneous mix of older equipment and use in their systems," ACA Connects said, referring both to equipment at the cable headend and older set-top boxes that are still in use by some customers.

The FCC said in its original public notice that it intends to study ways to offset financial costs for smaller cable operators and broadcasters if it agrees to move forward with its proposed changes.