Observers say certification work by FEMA -- which is a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- appears to be on schedule for the late March release. They also say that the evolution of the emergency alert mechanisms is something for which operators need to prepare. There is no crisis, however, if operators have been following their EAS obligations and keeping tabs on the transition during the past year. However, operators who have not paid enough attention need to begin planning, they say.
Two of the main vendors of this gear to the cable industry are Monroe Electronics and Trilithic. Both have gear in the FEMA lab at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY. Trilithic has submitted its EASyPLUS encoder/decoder and EASyCAP software. Monroe is awaiting word on its One-Net Model R189 encoder/decoder and other broadcast gear.
A Continuing Evolution
The Sept. 30 deadline is only one aspect of a continuing evolution of the cable industry's role in helping alert people to emergencies. FEMA, under the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) program, is implementing the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) in an effort to extend the amount of information alerts can include and the formats in which they can be distributed. "This is the first generation of gear that can process CAP," says Adam Jones, a senior applications engineer for Trilithic. "It has extended text capabilities, multi-language support and new text-to-speech capabilities."
More specifically, CAP uses XML-formatted messages that can be delivered in a number of ways. For the time being, they will operate alongside traditional EAS infrastructure and, indeed, will simply be seen by the system as an EAS message, albeit with a tremendous amount of additional data. Technically, the Sept. 30 deadline is aimed at CAP 1.2, which also will make carriage of emergency messages from respective states' governors mandatory instead of optional, as they have been in the past.
For operators, of course, the big question is how to prepare for the deadline. Steve Johnson, the principal of Johnson Telecom and the chairman of the SCTE EAS subcommittee, laid out common sense steps to CAP compliance. They are to inventory current EAS equipment; determine which can be upgraded and which must be replaced; develop plans for upgrades and replacements as appropriate; and install and test upgraded and newly installed gear.
The release of a list of approved products is a loud wakeup call to those who haven't focused on the issue to date. Jones and Ed Czarnecki, Monroe Electronics' senior director of strategy, development and regulatory affairs, report that gear from their respective companies can be upgraded, generally via software and/or adding servers, to meet the new standard.
Johnson suggests that as much as 70% of the gear in the field is upgradeable. The first call operators should make, he says, is to vendors to determine their equipment status. The process will be a bit trickier for operators whose EAS equipment was manufactured by vendors who are no longer in the business. That equipment, he says, probably can't be upgraded.
Czarnecki points out that operators need to make sure that equipment they are deploying is FCC-certified and IPAWS-conformed and that the vendor appears to have the ability to support it over the long term as subsequent revisions of CAP are released.
At this point, the transmission path is relatively straightforward. Messages are sent by emergency organizations using the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), RSS, TCP, HTTPS and other protocols, Jones says. They are converted by the encoder/decoders -- generally at the headend -- into formats that cable systems are capable of delivering and that end-user gear can decode. Operators must make sure that the vendors with whom they deal can seamlessly support subsequent additions to this procedure.
The potential fly in the ointment -- what Jones refers to as a potential "nightmare" if it is not attended to -- is that the federal regulations can be different than state emergency notification regulations. Each state, in turn, can set standards that are different from each other. For example, he says that California and Washington state currently use systems that are not "remotely close" to the federal standards.
This, obviously, is something that operators -- especially those with systems in more than one state -- must consider. Trilithic, Jones says, is in contact with companies that make emergency alert transmission equipment to ensure that it complies with state-level regulations. "All we need to know is how to decode their messages," he says.
The idea behind CAP is universally applauded. If anything, events in Japan during the past couple of weeks make the need for effective communications even more obvious. The release of the list of conforming gear is an important milestone in moving to this heightened state of readiness. "We are at an extremely dynamic moment," Czarnecki says.