Radio World July 16, 2008
GSS Seeks Its Place in Enhanced EAS
Other ‘Private’ Systems Also May Emerge
by Randy J. Stine, 7.16.2008
Randy Stine is a frequent RW contributor.
JACKSON, Miss. With a new approach to public warning on the horizon, Global Security Systems is actively pushing its Alert FM datacast technology — an FM-based digital alert and messaging system — hoping to emerge with a role in the new EAS platform being developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This is an active time in emergency alerting. From congressional subcommittee hearings in Washington to FCC-sponsored EAS summits, emergency alerting development remains a fluid situation with many different voices speaking. GSS hopes to be heard among the crowd.
As RW has reported, the Global Security Systems Alert FM system uses Radio Broadcast Data System subcarrier frequencies to transmit text data to Alert FM receivers and specially equipped portable devices. GSS believes its system will complement a new EAS. The company now has rolled out Alert FM in 12 states with more than 200 FM stations on its network.
“Specifically, we are hearing from broadcasters that they see the importance of supporting this to remain an important part of EAS,” said Matthew Straeb, executive vice president.
However, there are other experts in public warning who view Alert FM and other private systems simply as supplemental EAS services that will never be part of the primary EAS system. Some question the public service argument that GSS uses.
What about AM?
“I foresee many (private) services coming into the marketplace and they will be seeking partnerships with broadcasters for transport of their emergency data to mobile and fixed points,” said Dale Gehman, president of Gehman Compliance and Consulting, a firm that specializes in emergency warning systems consulting.
While admitting the likely benefits of Alert FM, Gehman said companies like Global Security Systems should be paying broadcasters for use of their spectrum.
“I welcome the many entrepreneurial private warning systems that will be seeking broadcasters’ spectrum to relay their product via the broadcasters’ data paths. However, I would also want a monthly check for the use of my spectrum. It should be a business-to-business relationship,” Gehman said.
Several other companies, including SpectraRep and Trilithic, are selling EAS-complementary systems that rely on IP-based technology. SpectraRep recently was awarded a contract from the state of Missouri to deploy its next-generation EAS system, called AlertManager.
Others worry that Alert FM leaves out AM broadcasters.
“My personal feeling is that while Global has come up with a viable technology, RBDS is an FM-only technology that leaves AM radio out in the cold,” said Richard Rudman, vice-chair for the California State Emergency Communications Committee.
Other EAS observers worry about FM’s penetration — or lack thereof — into office buildings and the need to purchase a special receiver to receive the Alert FM alerts.
Alert FM officials say broadcasters will be stakeholders in a system that requires they pay no recurring fees. GSS argues that typical cell network infrastructure is vulnerable and can become overwhelmed during a catastrophic event, thus the benefits of Alert FM’s point-to-multi-point broadcast structure.
“FM broadcasters have been providing emergency alerting information in this country for over 70 years. Broadcasters risk losing this important service to cell, Internet and satellite service if they don’t participate,” Straeb said
Alert FM’s targeted digital alerts, issued by emergency management officials, are delivered by satellite to FM broadcast stations and then transmitted via the data subcarriers of the broadcasters’ FM transmissions. Broadcasters install a GSSNet satellite receiver, at no charge, to use the system.
States and local municipalities must purchase a bundled package of hardware and software, the Alert FM portal, to create and originate local alert notifications. The system, which allows emergency managers to send digital alerts, NOAA weather warnings and Amber Alerts, can cost $15,000 and up.
Straeb said state and local municipalities are not charged monthly recurring fees for using Alert FM.
For the system to work, local emergency managers need at least one FM broadcaster in their geographic area to sign on for Alert FM and allow the service to use the station’s RBDS channel. In a typical scenario, local emergency managers are approached by GSS about Alert FM. In turn GSS will often work to secure promises from local stations to participate in the system, Straeb said.
Local emergency managers place Alert FM receivers with key emergency personnel within each community. Alert FM receivers also sell through the company’s Web site and retailers for less than $50, Straeb said.
Both first responders and the general population can benefit from the system, Straeb said.
The FCC in April adopted rules for delivering Commercial Mobile Alerts to the public during emergencies. In compliance with the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act, the commission adopted rules specifying technical requirements covering emergency text messages to cell phones based on recommendations from the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee.
GSS officials have been meeting with FCC and FEMA officials and touting Alert FM as a possible solution or complement to mobile alert services, Straeb said.
GSS’ Adams Is ‘Serial Entrepreneur’
“The FCC has acknowledged Alert FM as a possible solution,” Straeb said.
Activating FM chips
The company has also been actively pushing both government agencies to pressure cell phone manufacturers to place FM receivers in cell handsets, which would increase the number of devices on which GSS alerts could be received.
Alert FM developers say their single-point to multi-point technology has the ability to send text messages when other communication channels become clogged with traffic volume.
The FM chips found in some cellular handsets and other mobile devices can be activated to receive the alerts via FM-RBDS, GSS officials said, thus expanding its network.
The company estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the cell phones in this country are equipped with FM chips. More than 50 handset models on the market have the FM radio chips, according to GSS.
A recent NAB advocacy group study supports rapid adoption of FM in cell phones and urges broadcasters to move quickly to convince cell manufacturers of the benefits of producing FM-capable cell phones. Representatives from Emmis and the National Association of Broadcasters met recently with FCC staffers from the chairman’s office and the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau about activating FM chips in cellphones, according to a June 17 filing.
The NAB said it’s not working directly with GSS but that it’s monitoring the progress the company is making on using FM radio as an alerting platform for cellular phones.
The company’s goals of having Alert FM succeed depend a great deal on the ability to reach more than just those people who purchase the special Alert FM receivers, Straeb said.
The addition of an FM chip in cellular phones has no impact on size and little impact on price of the handset, Straeb said.
“The chips would add between 80 cents and $1 to the cost of a cellular phone if produced in large quantities. It’s really a competitive issue for the handset makers and another feature they can offer customers if they adopt the technology.”
Handset antenna requirements and battery life are two of several issues being addressed, Straeb said.
If the cellular industry adopts the FM receiver platform, a small plug-in download from GSS, which is license free, would be required, Straeb said.
The company has rolled out Alert FM in 12 states and on more than 200 stations.
Recent launches include parts of South Florida. In Broward and Miami-Dade County, residents have access to Alert FM. The initial south Florida radio stations participating in Alert FM are WRTO(FM), WLRN(FM) and WAMR(FM).
GSS has “distribution over a large geographical area in south Florida, giving emergency managers the potential to reach more than 4 million citizens in seconds,” according to a GSS press release.
George Mason University, located in northern Virginia, announced in March that it would use Alert FM for alerting resident advisors and school directors on campus. The school has more than 30,000 students and faculty.
Alert FM also has been implemented in Phoenix as well as Memphis, Tenn., according to the company.
Global Security Systems’ Alert FM also is the “exclusive provider of the alert notification contact path” for America’s Emergency Network, a communications technology company whose system sends video feeds via satellite from Emergency Operations Centers to emergency responders and the media, Straeb said.
AEN is a wholly owned subsidiary of Brampton Crest International, which recently named Robert Adams its chairman of the board.
Adams is president and chief executive officer of Global Security Systems. He and Michael Moreno founded GSS, a privately owned company, in 2003.
AEN in June completed a successful test of its video streaming emergency communication system during Florida’s annual hurricane exercise.
Former NAB President/CEO Eddie Fritts, who now heads up the lobbying firm The Fritts Group, promotes the Alert FM system to the public and other groups, Straeb said.