With help from ATSC 3.0, public media answers FCC’s call for partners in wireless emergency alerts initiative

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Mike Janssen, using DALL-E 3

When the FCC announced last fall that it was seeking partners for a wireless emergency alerts initiative, PBS North Carolina’s technologists immediately knew that the station’s ATSC 3.0 technology could be perfect for the program.

In March 2021, PBSNC began broadcasting in ATSC 3.0, the NextGen TV standard that provides advanced imaging and sound, as well as greater potential for internet integration. As an early adopter, the station has used its 3.0 signal for a remote-learning project funded by state grants during the COVID-19 pandemic.


But arguably the most important advancement NextGen TV offers is its enhanced emergency alert capabilities, which can provide real-time video, voice and data information for first responders, as well as geotargeted alerts and evacuation routes in multiple languages. In 2017, PBSNC won first place in the National Association of Broadcasters PILOT Innovation Challenge and received $30,000 for its proposal to use 3.0 capabilities for emergency alerts. The station used the grant money and leveraged other partnerships to open the Public Safety Research Center at its headquarters in 2020.

“We’ve already done a lot of work with ATSC 3.0,” said Fred Engel, CTO for PBSNC. “We’ve been testing for a few years now. We already had the receiving device that was built for this, we already had the means of connecting via Bluetooth to a mobile device, so it just seemed like this was an obvious solution to use 3.0 to get these messages to devices if the cellular network was down.”

The FCC announced Oct. 19 that it is interested in finding partners through the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to test the viability of delivering wireless emergency alerts during natural and human-induced disasters, particularly when cell towers are disabled or destroyed. After a large-scale AT&T cellular service outage Feb. 22, Engel, who has AT&T service, said the FCC’s request is yet “another reason why what we have proposed is so important.”

The FCC has asked interested parties to submit details about their solutions, including whether their idea works with mobile devices. The FCC said it intends to partner “with as many providers as practical” for the tests and that one of its primary objectives is “not requiring major changes to the current WEA delivery system or requiring consumers to purchase new devices.”


APTS EVP and COO Lonna Thompson said one of the things she’s most excited about with public media’s proposals is the ability to use ATSC 3.0 for advanced geotargeting capabilities.

“A lot of the reason people ignore alerts and warnings is because they don’t apply to them, and it provides this false sense of ‘I don’t have to pay attention,’” she said. “So 3.0 allowing very specific geotargeting to impacted areas provides a lot more information.”

The FCC aims to begin testing the alerts with partners in the second quarter of 2024.

Testing, testing

In public comments to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, APTS said public media stations can test wireless alerts through over-the-air broadcasts on both 1.0 and 3.0 signals. “Because broadcast television stations rarely share common infrastructure with cellular carriers and have dedicated backup generators for their transmitters, this distribution pathway increases the probability of WEA delivery when cellular systems or commercial power are compromised,” it said.

APTS’ plan includes a “low-cost” gateway device that can pass on alerts to cellphones, tablets and interactive voice assistants like Alexa and Siri.


The gateway would be similar to “a Wi-Fi router or a NextGen TV set-top box,” said Michelle Shanahan, APTS general counsel. “At volume manufacturing, we anticipate the price to be in the range of $100 to $150, decreasing as volumes increase.”

APTS suggested to the FCC that WHUT in Washington, D.C., which launched its 3.0 capabilities in 2021, be part of the initial testing. Based at Howard University, WHUT used ATSC 3.0 datacasting in November to send secure videos, images, files and alerts during the Marine Corps Marathon among multiple public safety entities across jurisdictions.

New Mexico PBS, which offers 1.0 and 3.0 services, provides another option. The station worked with local public safety organizations during the most recent wildfire season to datacast emergency information to affected areas, even when internet and cell service were down.


At the APTS Public Media Summit Tuesday in Washington, D.C., New Mexico PBS CEO Franz Joachim said 3.0’s capabilities can help keep public broadcasting relevant in the future. “I can’t help but see ATSC 3.0 as this tremendous opportunity,” he said. “It is amazingly efficient.”

APTS is supporting two additional public media proposals on wireless emergency alerts, including one from PBS.

PBS operates Eyes on IPAWS, an app that provides emergency managers access to all wireless emergency alerts in real time. IPAWS stands for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. The Eyes on IPAWS app can be installed on computers. It receives alerts over broadcast airwaves from PBS member stations and does not require an internet connection.

PBS also operates PBS WARN (Warning, Alert, Response Network) to provide a backup for the wireless emergency alert system. It allows local, state and national agencies to instantly send short message warnings from geotargeted cellphone towers directly to nearby mobile devices. On its website, PBS notes that if a cybersecurity incident or internet disruption to a carrier facility breaks its primary connection to FEMA, PBS WARN can provide an immediate alternative for wireless emergency alerts.

The other proposal APTS supported comes from PBSNC which is working with North Carolina Emergency Management, Device Solutions, Triveni Digital and Digital Alert Systems to test delivering alerts to cellular devices via 3.0 broadcast transmissions.

Engel said 3.0 tests PBSNC conducted ahead of the FCC’s request suggests that 3.0 can be an important selling point.

“The robustness of this is rather incredible — how deep within a building the signals are still readily received,” Engel said. “It works remarkably well,” he added.

“Because of the way we’ve provisioned this, we’re picking up these data transmissions significantly further out than what we initially projected,” Engel said. “We’re really excited about that, and we want to do more testing to get a firmer feel. But anecdotally, out of the box, it’s amazing technology delivering messages to perhaps 10,000 square miles from a single transmission site, not dozens or hundreds of cellular sites.”

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