By Sam Matheny, Capitol Broadcasting
ATSC TG1/S11 Chair
Earlier this year our CEO, Jim Goodmon, Sr., asked if we were using our ATSC signal to its full capability. I instinctively said, “yes,” and then rattled off that we were broadcasting high definition, SD multicast, and mobile. I then paused and told him of the early work PBS had been doing with a new Mobile Emergency Alert System (M-EAS). He immediately saw the impact it could have on our ability to serve our communities and said, “Let’s get it on the air. This is important.”
That kicked off a process where I learned a great deal about emergency alerts and the various systems that are currently in place. The more I learned the more excited I became about the emerging ATSC M-EAS standard. The other systems have severe shortcomings, and I am convinced that M-EAS will be a valuable tool for broadcasters, alerting authorities and the American public.
On Sept. 13. WRAL performed a demonstration of M-EAS at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. This marked the first time a commercial television station had demonstrated M-EAS and a wide range of emergency response professionals attended the event. We used a deadly hurricane, Hurricane Irene, as our use case. Hurricane Irene made landfall in North Carolina on Aug. 27, 2011. The storm killed 21 people in eight states, six in North Carolina.
We sent three alerts in our demonstration: before the storm, during the storm and after the storm. Each alert contained relevant information for the period of time it covered. We included storm track maps, radar images, an evacuation route update video, utility company outage maps, and county-by-county information on road closures, downed power lines, shelter locations and more. Our demonstration built on the previous examples PBS has built for tsunami, suspicious package, amber alert, and tornado. Thanks to PBS and to our friends at LG Electronics, Harris, and Roundbox for their help in making this demonstration a success.
So what is M-EAS?
Based on the ATSC A/153 Mobile DTV Standard, M-EAS is a new technology that provides free, interactive, on-demand emergency information over live television on capable mobile DTV handsets. Specifically, M-EAS uses ATSC non-real time (NRT) datacast capabilities to deliver potentially life saving information to mobile devices via an over-the-air broadcast television signal. It requires no cell towers, no cell phone data plan and no Internet access. It is the only system that has the capacity to deliver on-demand emergency messages to so many people simultaneously. M-EAS has the potential to reach millions of people with a single digital TV broadcast. The system requires no additional radiofrequency spectrum and is an additional use of existing TV transmitters and towers. M-EAS can deliver enhanced alerts that include video files, audio files, images and even interactive html pages.
Why is M-EAS important?
In times of crises, we need to be able to reach folks with vital information whenever and wherever they are. M-EAS enables this.
Local broadcasters provide the ability to deliver targeted alerts. They can be local, regional or national in scope.
Broadcasters provide the only truly scalable solution free of bottlenecks and queues. Alerts can instantly and simultaneously be delivered to millions of users.
Broadcasters are reliable and have hardened infrastructure that is designed to run 24/7/365.
Broadcasters provide a redundant solution with several stations in each market.
M-EAS is content rich. It enables the delivery of several different media types (video, audio, graphics and HTML pages) so users can get the latest and most complete information without the need for an Internet connection. In contrast, the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) only provides 90 characters of text. That isn’t even two-thirds of tweet. These messages also regularly state, “check local media” for more information.
As the CMAS alerts indicate, and PEW research validates, people already turn to local television as their number one source for news, especially in times of emergency. This is important as it means there is no need to retrain people to use a new system. It builds on their natural habits and enables them to receive more information than ever before, and on their mobile devices.
Mobile devices run on batteries and can be recharged in the car, so information can be distributed even when the power goes out.
What is the status of M-EAS?
The ATSC has an Ad-Hoc group on M-EAS, TG1/S4-7. This group is currently finalizing draft language that can be adopted by the ATSC as a standard. Jay Adrick of Harris Corporation is chairing the group, which has over 40 members.
What do people think?
Following our demonstration of M-EAS in Raleigh. we received an extremely positive response, especially from the emergency response community. We heard from the NC Department of Transportation, the Highway Patrol, the NC department of emergency management and others. The following quote is emblematic of the response.
“In disaster events we know quick, accurate information is key to saving and protecting lives,” said Barry Porter, Regional Executive Director for the American Red Cross. “I applaud WRAL for their efforts to use this emerging technology to place life saving information literally in our hands. It is very clear to me that it should be developed and implemented as soon as possible.”