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This is a test: pubTV may aid alert system

Originally published in Current, Oct. 18, 2004
By Jeremy Egner

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has tapped public TV stations and their satellite system as potential pillars of a new Digital Emergency Alert System.

APTS and DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency this week will announce the pilot project, begun Oct. 1 [2004], to test datacasts relayed by the PBS-managed satellite system as a way to alert the public in a national emergency. If successful, the six-month pilot could lead to a national alert system—and, with it, new federal funding for stations and the planned rebuild of the satellite system, APTS President John Lawson says.

The new digital alert system would supplement, not replace, the familiar analog EAS, which has been derided for its uselessness during the 9/11 attacks. Since it’s carried on a wireless DTV signal, the system would survive downed phone lines, jammed cellular networks and computer hackers.

APTS and FEMA will announce the pilot project Oct. 21 at Washington’s National Press Club.

Others partners include WETA in Washington, Maryland PTV, the New Jersey Network and WHRO in Norfolk, Va., as well as PBS and datacasting services firm SpectraRep in Chantilly, Va., which will coordinate the technical side of the project.

FEMA will give APTS $500,000 for equipment and project management costs, Lawson says. Reynold Hoover, director of FEMA’s Office of National Security Coordination, declines to speculate about what a national rollout might cost, but suspects there would be enough in the agency’s budget to cover it. Hoover and APTS chief operating officer Mark Erstling are the project leaders.

Sixty stations joined in a coalition with APTS to seek a role in emergency communications.

Datacasting uses stations’ DTV spectrum to beam images, sounds, files and video into digital devices such as laptops, wireless handhelds and, someday soon, cellular phones. Pubcasters such as Nashville PTV, Dallas’s KERA and New Jersey Network already use datacasting locally to assist emergency responders and distribute classroom videos to schools.

Alerts could include emergency aids such as evacuation plans as well as the attack warnings from the White House that the analog EAS is designed to carry, Lawson says. The system could carry encrypted addressable data such as protocols for treatment of biowarfare victims that only medical workers would receive.

As with the EAS, the digital version could be used by city and state authorities to air alerts about chemical spills, wildfires and other regional hazards.

“Those who say over-the-air broadcasting is dead may think twice when they realize what we can do in terms of public warning,” Lawson says.

The pilot will aim to establish multiple efficient ways to link authorities with transmitters—it must ensure that a president secluded in an “undisclosed location” can get his messages into the PTV system.

WETA will serve as the primary relay transmitter and be the site of most of the technological work, Lawson says. Partner stations will receive and retransmit test signals. Citing a lack of specific details to share, WETA execs declined to comment.

Ed Czarnecki, a homeland security specialist with SpectraRep, says a typical test might go like this: FEMA sends text, audio and video messages to WETA via local circuits and the satellite system relays them to other stations that shoot the data to digital receivers throughout the Maryland/Virginia region.

“We want to step on this signal as many times as we can to see how it holds up,” Lawson says.

For additional circuits to the public, the alerts in the DTV bitstream would carry into those of other network providers, such as cellular and cable companies. APTS is currently discussing collaborations with companies in those industries and will likely announce partnerships at the Oct. 21 conference.

In addition to leaping technical hurdles, project leaders hope to establish protocols for agencies and broadcasters to work together nationally and regionally. “If people in the system don’t work well together,” SpectraRep President Rick Ducey says, “the technology won’t solve the problem.”

“Huge validation” in sight

Many Americans can recall the grating buzz and cheerless “this is only a test” of the predecessors of EAS—CONELRAD during the Cold War era and then the Emergency Broadcast System. The purpose of the systems then, as now, was to provide a means for the president to address the citizenry, broadcast warnings of attacks and provide safety information in national emergencies.

The events of 9/11 revealed that EAS in its current state, dependent on a relatively uncoordinated network of broadcasters, was unprepared for a true national emergency. It was never activated during the terrorist attacks.

Still, the FCC didn’t ask for comments on how EAS should be improved until two months ago. Comments are due Oct. 29. The Commission had no comment on the PTV plan.

Prior to the FCC’s action, FEMA had already began updating the analog system. When the agency began to consider incorporating digital signals this year, according to Hoover, APTS offered free use of public TV satellites and said stations could demonstrate the technology for relatively little cost. “The beauty of what APTS brings is they have the infrastructure in place,” he says.

While Lawson says the plan wasn’t conceived as a way to fund the new interconnection system, Congress would likely pony up some of the $177 million cost if it serves as backbone of a nationwide DEAS. A Senate proposal for CPB reauthorization would offer $250 million in satellite funding to be shared by radio and TV over the next four years, but the bill is expected to die without leaving the Senate. The bill could serve as foundation of a similar bill next year.

An alert system based on public TV datacasting may also make stations eligible for homeland security dollars.

A successful pilot test would be a “huge validation of datacasting by government and DHS,” says Ducey.

His company, SpectraRep, already works with Nashville PTV and other pubcasters to provide community datacasting services. For the DEAS project, SpectraRep is using such vendors as the Digital Network, a spinoff of KERA in Dallas.

In addition to establishing best practices, Ducey says, a high profile federal project would boost stations’ datacasting pitches to local and state governments. Stations could build new revenue streams from such services as local emergency alerts, critical incident response, preparedness training and custom applications, he says.

Web page posted Nov. 2, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee

Lawson speaking

Lawson hopes offering a ready-made digital network will win goodwill and federal dollars for pubTV. (Photo: APTS.)


A growing number of public TV stations expect datacasting will become both a public service and a revenue source, 2004.

In a Current commentary, Steve Bass tells why datacasting is a top priority use of digital TV for Nashville PTV.


APTS press release.

FEMA press release.

FEMA explains the Emergency Alert System.

SpectraRep, a partner for APTS and some stations in developing datacast projects.