FCC explains why some received emergency alerts while others didn’t


Saturday’s missile alert mistake caused widespread panic across the state.

Yet, some cell phone users never got the alert.

James Wiley, FCC investigator, told lawmakers Friday there are three main reasons why that happened.

1: By statute, subscribers have the right to opt out of receiving notifications that are imminent threats or Amber alerts.

“So if an individual had gone into their notification settings and selected to opt out of receiving imminent threat alerts, they would not have received either the initial alert or the subsequent correction,” Wiley explained.

Alerts sent by the president of the United States will still be received. No president has used the system to send a message, yet.

2: Also by statute, carriers in the Wireless Emergency Alert system have the option to participate either in whole or in part.

Therefore, Wiley explained, “there may be phones that a carrier offers at the point of sale which are not WEA capable, or even if you have a subscription with a carrier that offers WEA service, you might not be in the geographic service area in which that carrier offers wireless emergency alerts.”

Click for more information on the WEA system from the FCC and from FEMA.

3: Radio frequency propagation issues.

“If you happen to be in a basement at the time of the initial alert, an urban canyon, or for whatever reason in an area where you couldn’t receive the alert message, the subsequent cancellation of the initial alert would have prevented you from receiving that alert when you regained service,” Wiley said.

The FCC says additional reported issues regarding cell phone alerts remain under investigation.

He noted that emergency alerts can still be sent, even if a carrier’s network becomes congested.

“Wireless emergency alerts on most providers’ networks are transmitted over a separate channel than the data network that may become congested during emergencies. They, for many carriers, use the cell broadcast channel, which is separate, and so the transmission of those alerts would not be affected by a high density of call volume on the data network,” he explained.

Wiley adds that while rules and regulations are in place for broadcasters and carriers to transmit alerts, the FCC does not regulate the content or context of the alerts themselves.

“Our rules do not extend to alert originators, and FEMA has primary responsibility for authorizing alert originators to initiate alerts using these alerting platforms, and has training and memorandums of agreement with alert originators for rules and behavior and proper protocol for initiating alerts using these systems,” Wiley said.

As for rural areas that do not have strong reception, Wiley said, “There is authority in the State of Hawaii to issue alerts that reach the geographic area that you represent. It is up to the state how authority to initiate alerts is or is not delegated to counties within the state. FEMA works with alert originators to determine the correct authorization for each entity that they authorize.”

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