How Hurricane Harvey Highlights Need to Modernize Wireless Emergency Alerts

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Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of August 28 - September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast on August 25. The Category 4 storm brought massive rainfall and unprecedented flooding to the Houston area and emergency procedures are underway for what may be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. One critical component of rescue operations is maintaining reliable communications networks, a key mission of the Federal Communications Commission.

“Communications ranks up there with having fuel in the police cars,” Trey Forgety, director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association

Large-scale crises often reveal the difficulties governments and residents have communicating critical information when networks are at peak use. For years, wireless carriers and policymakers have been debating updates to the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, trying to craft policy that would better enable mobile devices to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting people of imminent threats to safety in their area. Even as first responders are working to rescue people at risk in South Texas, the disaster is returning attention to the WEA debate.


The FCC was swift to respond to Harvey, activating its Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) and deploying personnel to Texas. The agency also kept its operations center open around the clock to field calls from communications providers on the ground.

On Monday, the FCC reported that about 320 of the 7,804 cell sites in Harvey’s path, roughly 4 percent, were wiped out, affecting 148,565 people. The storm also left almost 190,000 TV, internet and phone customers in Texas and Louisiana without service. By contrast, more than 1,000 cell sites were knocked out during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, preventing millions of calls from going through. Texas’ 9-1-1 system has been overloaded with calls, but “those calls are going through,” said Adm. Jamie Barnett, former chief of public safety and homeland security at the FCC. “By and large we’re hearing that the cellular networks stood up. That means there’s been some learning.”

Will Rural Texas Get Its Phone Service Back?

Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at Public Knowledge, wrote this week that rural residents of Texas still dependent on traditional landlines may never get their phone service back:

Why never? Back in 2011, Texas deregulated its telephone system. Of particular relevance here, Texas made it ridiculously easy for phone companies to get rid of their “carrier of last resort” (COLR) obligations — the obligation for the incumbent telephone network to provide service to everyone its service territory. As a result, phone companies in Texas do not have a state-based legal obligation to repair or replace service once it goes down. So in places where the telephone network has been damaged or destroyed by Harvey, AT&T (the primary legacy phone company in the impacted area) has no state responsibility to restore service.

AT&T is in the process of converting its phone network from traditional technology to an Internet-based platform. But without legal enforcement, AT&T may refrain from making the upgrades in rural areas of Texas, leaving people without landline service. Feld continued:

While AT&T will undoubtedly want to replace and upgrade the facilities in Houston and the suburbs (although, in light of AT&T’s record in Cleveland, it may skip certain poorer neighborhoods), investment in rural areas is much more expensive (since you need to cover a lot more territory to reach everyone) and much less profitable (because there are fewer customers and more of them are poor) than in urban areas. Historically, phone companies only built out to rural areas after we passed the Communications Act of 1934, when federal law (duplicated in most states) required phone companies to build out to rural areas.


The Houston emergency center processed 75,000 calls between Friday night and Monday morning. With long hold times, many of the trapped residents turned to social media for help. It got to the point where the Houston Police Department issued a statement urging people to please not contact its social media accounts for rescue requests. But there was another way to request help: by texting to 911.

Unfortunately, Ben Johnson and Jana Kasperkevic noted the sparse use of text-to-911 technology. “People prefer to call,” said Joe Laud, the administration manager at the Houston Emergency center.

The text-to-911 program uses fairly new technology that has been around for just three to four years. Rollout has been slow due to reliance on local funding. So far somewhere between 20 to 25 percent of 911 centers have implemented text-to-911 programs. For example, in Texas, the services are available in the Houston metropolitan area but not in Austin.

Industry Response

Because Hurricane Harvey has been a slow-moving storm, companies like Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T had time to pre-arrange fuel delivery for their cell sites’ backup generators and ready their portable cell units to be deployed into hard-hit areas. Additionally, major wireless companies and cable TV/Internet service providers have pledged millions of dollars to Harvey relief efforts. Several wireless providers have offered temporary, free calling and texting for customers in the affected areas.

Industry Opposition to Modernizing Emergency-Response System

Tony Romm, writing for Vox, reported on Harvey’s relevancy to the ongoing debate behind the FCC’s WEA modernization efforts:

For years, the FCC has endeavored to upgrade the sort of short text-based messages — often accompanied by a loud alarm — that authorities have used since 2012 to warn Americans about rising floods, abducted children and violent criminals at large. But efforts to bring those alerts into the digital age — requiring, for example, that they include multimedia and foreign-language support — have been met with skepticism or opposition from the likes of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile, and even some device makers, too. Carriers have argued that some of those changes could prove technically difficult or costly to implement, while congesting their networks — and in recent months, they’ve encouraged the FCC to slow down its work.

In 2016, under the leadership of then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the agency adopted an order that increased the maximum length of a wireless emergency alert from 90 characters to 360 characters. The FCC also pushed large wireless companies to support transmission of those alerts in Spanish. And the Commission required that companies soon allow “embedded references,” like URLs and phone numbers, in the alerts they pass along on behalf of public-safety leaders.

The changes applied only to telecom providers that participate in the program, which includes major carriers — but, technically, participation is voluntary.

In doing so, Chairman Wheeler also put the agency on track to weigh other, more ambitious reforms to wireless alerts. By issuing a further notice of proposed rulemaking, the agency teed up for debate new requirements that the messages finally enable multimedia, like video, and that they be more specifically targeted to exact locations — including smartphone owners in harm’s way. Wheeler even wanted to look into tools that would allow recipients to send information about a disaster back to first responders.

CTIA, the main lobbying group for large wireless providers, argued against a full-scale, aggressive WEA overhaul. CTIA’s concern was that too many users clicking too many links or other multimedia during an emergency would overwhelm carriers’ networks. In January 2017, CTIA asked the FCC to stop any additional WEA reforms, writing in reply comments that Wheeler’s proposed rules, “pose technical and economic challenges that render implementation infeasible or premature.”

The public safety community largely disagrees with the position of industry lobbyists. Perhaps presciently, a local public safety official in Texas, Francisco Sánchez, Jr., wrote to the FCC in July 2017, saying that the delays were leaving the public safety community feeling “frustrated and disappointed.” Sánchez noted:

Harris County [TX] rarely uses WEA because it does not want to potentially alert the entire county when a WEA message may only pertain to a certain portion of the county. For example, an ordered evacuation for a hurricane or tropical storm would need to communicate different messages to different areas: inland populations should take shelter, while populations near the Gulf of Mexico should evacuate immediately.

The fate of modernizing WEA now rests with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. In the past, Pai has supported reforms to the content and delivery of WEA. Speaking on the matter in September 2016 — at the time, as a commissioner — he pointed to the likes of Houston and Harris County, Texas, as he made the case for reform. “Millions of people who live in these communities could miss out on potentially life-saving information because [the alert system’s] current brushstroke is too broad,” he said.

At the time, Pai endorsed a “device-based approach to geo-targeting,”, which he said meant that devices themselves would “screen emergency messages and only allow the relevant ones through.” Many local officials like Sánchez in Harris County, Texas, who have advised the FCC in recent months, share a belief that device-makers should play a greater role, while fretting that the “carriers are asking for the FCC to delay the timeline for some of these critical improvements.”

But the idea hasn’t exactly won support among tech giants like Apple and Microsoft, which have quietly taken their own concerns to the FCC. During a private call with top FCC officials just a few weeks ago on August 10, for example, Apple’s leading lobbyists said the iPhone cannot currently do what Chairman Pai has proposed — and if it did make the tweaks, it might “harm consumers by delaying their access to critical safety information.” Also, it’d drain the battery, Apple said.

For now, Pai has offered little indication as to his next steps. He announced this week that he will visit the Harvey-impacted area on September 5.

As both the debate over WEA and recovery efforts continue in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, you can be sure it will be covered daily in benton logoHeadlines.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconIn the Trenches of Trump's Leak War (Vanity Fair)
coffee iconThese four key areas of Trump’s tech policy are top of mind for Silicon Valley CEOs (Vox)
coffee iconBroadband Infrastructure Alone Does Not Bridge the Digital Divide (NDIA)
coffee iconKansas City Was First to Embrace Google Fiber, Now Its Broadband Future Is 'TBD' (Vice)
coffee iconSilicon Valley siphons our data like oil. But the deepest drilling has just begun (The Guardian)
coffee iconThe Realpolitik of the Sinclair-Tribune Merger (The Diffusion Group)
coffee iconFCC Pledges Openness – Just Don’t Ask to See Complaints (Wired)

Events Calendar for September 4-8, 2017
Sept 6 -- Addressing the Risk of Waste, Fraud and Abuse in the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline Program, Senate Commerce Committee hearing
Sept 7 -- Tech-Powered Civic Engagement Playbook Launch, Next Century Cities
Sept 8 -- 45th Research Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy, TPRC

ICYMI from Benton
benton logoCan Communications Unite Us? Lessons from Charlottesville, Robbie McBeath

By Robbie McBeath.