FCC readies cellphone emergency alert system

The FCC says it’s ready to launch a new mobile telephone disaster alert system by the end of this year – but only in Washington and New York.

Many cities and districts already send out text messages in the event of an emergency. But the new system has support from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, and will be extended nationwide by next April.

It will allow government officials to send alerts directly to the public in the event of a major disaster. Customers don’t pay for the alerts.

The Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN) will only carry messages about the most serious problems, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. It will warn anybody in the locality, regardless of their phone’s area code or where it is registered.

Messages shouldn’t get lost in the user’s inbox, as they’ll appear on the phone’s main screen and may have a special ring tone or vibration. And they’ll be prioritized, meaning that they should get through even if the phone lines are congested.

Unfortunately, though, not all current cellphones contain the chip required to receive the alerts. A software upgrade is also required.

There will be three levels of alert, with the most serious being critical national alerts from the president; customers won’t be able to opt out of these, although they will be able to choose not to receive the less vital ones, such as those warning about crimes or Amber alerts about missing children.

The plan has been five years in the making, having been approved by Congress back in 2006.