**NOTE** Since the publishing of this post, the FCC has modified its decision on the TTS ban. Please see this post for updated information: Kudos to FCC on Timely TTS Decision
On January 10, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its Fifth Report and Order (R&O) on the Emergency Alert System (EAS), outlining new rules on incorporating the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) into the existing EAS rules. As with all FCC R&Os, these new rules do not take effect until 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register. The rules were duly published on March 22, and thus become effective on April 23, 2012. While some rules in the R&O carry a stipulation that they are not in effect until June 30, 2012, the date that broadcasters and cable systems must have CAP/EAS equipment installed, items in the R&O not accordingly identified become fully effective on April 23, 2012. One such item is the FCC prohibition on the use of text-to-speech (TTS) technology in CAP/EAS units as covered previously on AWARE, and thus broadcasters and cable operators must disable the TTS feature in their CAP/EAS unit by April 23, 2012.
Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has filed a Petition for Reconsideration with the FCC asking that the TTS ban be repealed, numerous supportive comments have been filed, and a senior FCC official has stated that the Commission “wants to do the right thing” regarding TTS, the FCC does not typically move quickly on such matters and any change to the CAP EAS rules is not expected prior to the April 23, 2012 effective date. Thus, any broadcaster or cable operator with a CAP/EAS unit already installed and connected to receive CAP alerts must disable the TTS feature in their unit by April 23 in order to remain compliant with FCC EAS rules. Contact the manufacturer of the CAP/EAS unit for instructions on disabling the TTS capability. In some cases, manufacturers must provide new firmware for the CAP/EAS unit operating system, which would then likely have TTS already defaulted to the disabled status. Considering that the highly-attended National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual convention is taking place in Las Vegas from April 14-19, engineers and key station personnel may be out of town leading up to April 23 so it is recommended to at least investigate the steps required to disable TTS in your CAP/EAS unit before heading off to the NAB convention. In the absence of disabling TTS, one could simply disconnect the CAP input to the CAP/EAS unit for the time being as reception of CAP messages is not mandated until June 30, 2012.
TTS was to be one of the premier new features of CAP/EAS units, enabling emergency managers to initiate simple text-only CAP alerts and allow the receiving CAP/EAS unit at each broadcast or cable facility to convert the text in the alert to a speech announcement for broadcast during the on-air EAS alert. While TTS synthesized speech engines have improved much in recent years, the FCC said in its R&O that it has concerns over whether TTS is “sufficiently accurate” for EAS use and the Commission feels that different TTS software could produce differing EAS audio messages from the same CAP alert. So the FCC stipulated that TTS not be used at the present time in broadcaster and cable system CAP/EAS units. With FEMA requesting that the TTS ban be withdrawn and almost 20 parties to date filing supportive comments, most in the EAS community expect that the FCC will repeal the prohibition on TTS but realize that must be done within the FCC’s process framework which may take a bit of time. While not filing any comments, the National Weather Service has enough confidence in TTS that it is used on a daily basis on more than 1000 NOAA Weather Radio transmitters nationwide to broadcast warnings of life-threatening weather events. Several states have already deployed CAP-based alerting systems that have been utilizing TTS for years without significant detrimental effects. Let’s hope the FCC acts sooner rather than later on allowing TTS in CAP to EAS alert conversion.