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Cellular Carriers Readying Emergency Alert Phones

5/10/2011 02:35:09 PM Eastern
New York - Cellular carriers are beginning to seed the market with cellphones compatible with a planned emergency alert system called PLAN(Personal Localized Alerting Network).

PLAN lets government officials send text alerts to cellphones within a specific geographic area even if cellular voice and text-message channels are congested.

PLAN technology will be implemented voluntarily by April 2012 in the networks of the big four U.S. carriers as well as by many other carriers, including Leap, MetroPCS, and U.S. Cellular, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said.

In New York City, however, PLAN will be launched by the big four carriers by the end of this year, four months ahead of the April 2012 deadline because of a public-private collaboration with the FCC, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), carriers and the city, the FCC announced.

Ninety percent of New York City subscribers with a PLAN-capable phone will be able to receive PLAN alerts by the end of this year, the FCC noted.

PLAN enables federal, state and local officials to send text-like alerts to every person with a PLAN-enabled phone in a targeted geographic area so the alerts reach "the right people, at the right time, with the right messages," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. The text blasts will cut through any network congestion because PLAN technology "creates a fast lane for emergency alerts," guaranteeing that emergency alerts get through even if traditional voice and text channels are congested, he said. PLAN uses a technology that is separate from voice and text-message channels, the FCC said.

PLAN-capable phones will receive three types of emergency alerts: alerts issued by the president of the U.S., alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life, and Amber Alerts.

Some carriers, the commission said, will offer PLAN "over all or parts of their service areas or over all or only some of their wireless devices." Ultimately, however, the FCC said it expects PLAN to be available in most of the country.

To date, Sprint offers two PLAN-compatible phones, the Sanyo Innuendo by Kyocera and the Sanyo Vero by Kyocera. Sprint also said it plans to offer more PLAN-capable mobile devices later this year and to include PLAN technology in all new Sprint phones by the end of 2011.

AT&T has not yet announced a PLAN-compatible device nor a timetable to offer them, a spokesperson said. T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless haven't yet responded to requests for updates on whether they already offer PLAN-compatible phones.

The FCC noted that some existing phones might need only a software upgrade to become PLAN-compatible.

PLAN works like this: Authorized national, state or local government officials send public safety emergency alerts, such as tornado warnings or terrorist threats, to a PLAN. PLAN authenticates the alert, verifies that the sender is authorized, and sends it to participating wireless carriers. The carriers push the alerts from cell towers to mobile phones in the affected area. The alerts will appear like a text message, and the phone will emit an attention signal and vibrate to notify callers that the message is an emergency message. Alerts will not have to be opened like a typical text message but will pop up on the handset's screen.

Consumers whose carriers participate in the program are automatically signed up to get the alerts, which are free, though carriers could opt to let consumers choose to receive only presidential messages.

Because the service is geographically targeted, an emergency alert could be sent to all PLAN phones in Manhattan or parts of Manhattan, including to phones used by visiting tourists.

For its part, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) noted that "when a cellular network goes down, customers will still be unable to access these 90-character warnings. As was evidenced in Alabama and other parts of the South just two weeks ago, there is no communications system that matches the life-saving immediacy of a local broadcast signal."

PLAN was created by the 2006 Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, which required carriers that chose to participate in offering PLAN do so by a deadline determined by the FCC.

PLAN complements the existing federal Emergency Alert System (EAS), which FCC and FEMA has implemented through broadcasters and other media service providers. EAS is a modernized version of the previous Emergency Broadcast System in effect from 1963 to 1997. PLAN is also known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).
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