Last Fall when the FCC and FEMA conducted the first live code test for the national level of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), observers noted that some cable systems that overrode local television stations they carried caused significant disruptions to those stations. Apart from this, the FCC has received a series of complaints from local television viewers based on interruptions caused by routine tests and, in some cases, real EAS events including AMBER alerts. While the FCC has not yet issued their report on the national live code test, some EAS committees have been working with cable systems to explore the extent of the issue, and what might be done long term to fix override problems that at best frustrate local TV viewers receiving stations on cable, and at worst interrupt real-time coverage of emergencies by local TV stations with full service news departments.
In 1998, when the EAS rules were first issued, the National Association of Broadcasters, Society of Broadcast Engineers, and other EAS stakeholders told the FCC that blanket cable override of on-air television should not be allowed. Cable systems that are unable to implement selective override inevitably interrupt on-air television stations that carry live emergency information. These live reports, often from the scene of the emergency, provide much more benefit to the community than a basic EAS message with bad audio quality. To make matters worse, depending on the cable system’s technology, cable override of the live report can freeze viewer screens causing delays beyond the length the canned message before the broadcast station signal is restored to the cable channel.
The FCC chose at that time to ignore solid broadcast stakeholder reasoning supporting this, but did permit television stations to request cable systems not override them. Sections 11.51(g)(4) and 11.51(h)(4) authorize the creation of a written agreement between a broadcaster and a cable or wireless cable system that releases the cable system from interrupting broadcast programming on that system for an EAS state or local message.
While appearing to the FCC to be a decent compromise at the time, it turns out this is much more complicated and costly issue than they envisioned. EAS stakeholders have been searching for a solution palatable to both the broadcasting and cable industries since the EAS rules were put in place. This article summarizes the information gained from those efforts and future steps that can be taken.
One of the problems a cable company may face in dealing with the selective override issue are provisions in their local licensing agreement that allows city officials to post announcements during emergencies. The legislative bodies that fashioned these licenses would need to alter or rescind those provisions, possibly in recognition that better and more complete information is usually available during emergencies from TV stations with news departments.
The major bar to settling the cable override issue, however, is the massive embedded technical infrastructure that needs to be physically replaced in virtually every cable operation – ranging from digital control systems down to the set top box, and software and firmware that controls both.
Even when the equipment is in place to do selective override, the software to actually do it may not exist. If the appropriate software is available, there are many set top boxes in use that cannot be updated – they would need to be replaced. The replacement cycle for set-top boxes is measured in years.
While it may seem logical to request a cable override agreement that covers only those boxes that can be “selected out”, there is currently no way for an operator to know which boxes received an EAS message and which ones did not. This feedback is important because the cable operator has a responsibility to warn their viewers who did not receive a message from their local broadcaster.
The conversion to CAP-EAS will bring more warning information to people at risk than the basic message currently in use. That is a two-edged sword when it comes to cable override. The longer the EAS message that a cable system runs, the more time blanket overrides will interrupt on-air live reports from broadcast stations.
A secondary issue having to do with EAS tests is that when cable systems do their EAS monthly testing, it is impossible for them to coordinate with all the on-air television stations. The result is viewer frustration when programs they are watching are interrupted by routine tests.
Given the range of technical hurdles to resolving the cable override problem, some state broadcaster associations have been working with the cable and satellite industries to develop a roadmap towards a more effective warning system. The operating premise is that FCC action is more likely if a plan to solve the issue is presented to them by a working group of key subject experts from the affected industries.
1. Verify Systems & Get on the Record
In the transition to DTV, research has found that some TV stations are unaware of all the cable systems in their area of service and how those systems received their signals. Broadcast television stations carrying EAS messages should maintain an accurate list of all cable systems carrying their signal and submit a written selective override request to each under the current FCC rules provisions.
2. Reduce the Number of Programming Interruptions
The local plans created by the Local Emergency Communications Committees (LECCs) can be modified to minimize the number of warnings that are mandatory for cable to initiate. The LECC’s are in the process of revising local EAS plans to include the transition to Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), so this can be an issue added to their agenda.
3. Quantify the Extent of Hardware & Software Override Issues
If we are to reach a point where all cable systems have the ability to be selective in their overrides, a comprehensive survey is needed to assess the impediments that lie in our way. This would require an analysis of the cost of software upgrades and new equipment necessary for all cable subscribers to have their broadcast stations uninterrupted while the remaining channels display the EAS message. The life cycle of the installed base of cable equipment becomes a key factor that cannot be ignored.
4. Require Hardware Providers To Develop Common Standards & Software Upgrades
Even if an override was technically feasible in the head end of a cable system, many cable boxes lack the software coding to implement an override. Manufacturers should be required to build boxes that allow for overrides and retrofit their current boxes, and write appropriate software. This would seem to be an item that will require FCC action.
Like other challenges, this one also brings with it opportunities. Future cable technology could offer the benefit of warning appliance features. What could warning appliance features offer? Warning appliance capability could take emergency messages and other information out of program streams for display on external devices, provide external signals to bed shakers and other alarms designed for people with sight and hearing impairment, and store warnings that come in when subscribers are not home.
The cable override problem is complex and the solutions are costly, but presents opportunities for adding unique life safety value to cable service. Until this issue is addressed in a meaningful way, the public will continue to pay a price as long as live news reports with lifesaving action messages are replaced by short, vague emergency messages with poor audio quality.
Photo credit: Perfectance