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Millions of Cheap Cell Phones Don't Get Emergency Alerts

The issue is the newest target of digital divide activists.

by Kari Paul
Jun 2 2015, 6:21pm

Image: Flickr/Dominik Syka

About a year and a half ago, Adam Clayton Powell III bought the most inexpensive mobile phone and phone plan that Radioshack carried to see how it worked.

Powell, who is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP), said the device was $9.99 with a service plan that cost less than $10 a month. While he was sitting in a meeting in Washington, DC, a tornado warning went into effect, and the phones of everyone in the conference room went crazy with warnings, including his own iPhone. But Powell said his cheaper model remained silent.

"It turns out that under FCC regulations, alerts for emergencies are optional at the discretion of the phone company," he said. "What we've found is some companies transmit emergency alerts and some don't, and some only transmit them to more expensive plans and not cheaper plans. It's all a very opaque area."

Most smartphones are actually equipped with radio receiver chips, but are usually disabled

Powell said this leaves millions of Americans without access to Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on feature phones, which Powell said are the primary devices used by young and low-income Americans.

The WEA system is maintained by the Wireless Association, the FCC, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It sends out automatic warnings regarding dangerous situations including alerts issued by the president, AMBER alerts, and imminent threat alerts, which include hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes.

In 2014, CCLP launched an effort to research ways to address the framework for WEA and improve public safety. This week, it filed a comment urging the FCC to require cell phone carriers to use WEA-enabled phones on plans that receive government subsidies as part of the Lifeline program.

"According to the FCC Master WEA Carrier Registry File, 103 commercial mobile carriers are participating in the WEA program (either 'in part' or 'in whole')," reads the filing. "However, even if all of these are [Lifeline eligible carriers (ETCs)], that is still a small fraction of the approximately 2,000 ETCs that offer Lifeline services."

"What we've been doing here is bringing people around the table to examine ways that have broad support that do not cost very much money and that would improve public safety and emergency preparedness using existing cell phone technologies and networks," Powell said.

Lifeline is a program launched in 1985 that originally provided landline phone services to low-income households, and has since expanded to include mobile devices. In addition to enabling WEA, CCLP is urging the FCC to give cell phone carriers participating in the program enough funding to provide phones and plans that allow for minimum text messaging and broadband capabilities.

The comment filed this week also encourages carriers to provide phones that are equipped with working FM chips. He said many cell phone networks are overwhelmed with calls during emergencies, so it would be preferable for users to have access to broadcast radio, which is more reliable. Most smartphones sold in the US are actually equipped with radio receiver chips, but they are usually disabled by companies who profit off of data plans that would likely be impacted by free radio streaming.

Powell said the emergency information filing has received broad support from both government officials and private companies, largely because the enhanced services could be delivered within the existing budget.

"What we've proposed will not increase costs at all of the Lifeline system, and could enable millions more Americans to get real-time information about life threatening emergencies," he said.

The suggested changes are limited to people eligible for Lifeline services, but CCLP eventually wants all mobile providers to include these features. In the meantime, these recommendations could mean better safety measures for some of the most vulnerable people in the US.