CRTC to ad­dress prob­lems found in wire­less emer­gency sys­tem roll­out

Trial run of alert sig­nal didn’t reach all mo­bile phones, Am­ber Alert went too far

Ottawa Citizen - - FINANCIAL POST - EMILY JACK­SON

Of­fi­cials are in de­brief­ing mode fol­low­ing last week’s flawed trial run of Canada’s new wire­less emer­gency alert­ing sys­tem, which gen­er­ated more crit­i­cism on Mon­day when the first real alert was is­sued across On­tario.

The Cana­dian Ra­dio-tele­vi­sion and Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion said it is work­ing with its part­ners to find all the is­sues that arose after tech­ni­cal er­rors caused test alerts to be in­con­sis­tently dis­trib­uted to cel­lu­lar de­vices. Wire­less providers must re­port back on their par­tic­i­pa­tion by May 21.

“Once the prob­lems have been iden­ti­fied, the CRTC will take ap­pro­pri­ate steps to ad­dress the dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions that af­fected wire­less pub­lic alert­ing in Canada,” spokes­woman Patricia Val­ladao said.

Any fixes will have to in­volve wire­less providers, fed­eral and provincial emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials, and Oakville, Ont.based Pel­morex Corp., which op­er­ates the Na­tional Alert and Ag­gre­ga­tion Sys­tem.

The CRTC ordered wire­less providers to par­tic­i­pate in the na­tional alert­ing sys­tem, tra­di­tion­ally lim­ited to ra­dio and tele­vi­sion broad­casts, to take ad­van­tage of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of smart­phones in warn­ing the masses of im­mi­nent safety threats, such as dan­ger­ous weather or Am­ber alerts. Wire­less sub­scribers can’t opt out of the alerts.

The United States started us­ing wire­less alerts six years ago and it has since suc­cess­fully sent more than 33,000 warn­ings. But the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion had to ex­am­ine op­er­a­tions this year after an emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cer in Hawaii ac­ci­den­tally sent a false alarm about an im­mi­nent nu­clear at­tack to phones across the is­lands, re­sult­ing in “38 min­utes of con­fu­sion, fear and un­cer­tainty.”

Ini­tial anal­y­sis from Canada’s tests in­di­cates prob­lems at mul­ti­ple points. Pel­morex, owner of The Weather Net­work, said an ex­tra space in a line of code pre­vented the wire­less alert from go­ing out in Que­bec, al­though it fixed the er­ror so the other 11 tests could pro­ceed.

In On­tario, a net­work con­fig­u­ra­tion is­sue stopped Bell Canada cus­tomers from re­ceiv­ing the alert, ac­cord­ing to a spokesman. The is­sue was fixed in time to send the re­main­ing 10 alerts.

Telus Corp., which has a net­work shar­ing agree­ment with Bell, also blamed tech­ni­cal is­sues when some cus­tomers did not re­ceive the alerts. It, too, said the prob­lems have been cor­rected. Rogers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc. said it had no such prob­lems.

There was also con­fu­sion over which mo­bile de­vices would ac­tu­ally re­ceive an alert (visit alertready.ca for a list), so some de­vices rang like sirens while oth­ers re­mained si­lent. Com­pat­i­ble de­vices must be up­dated with the lat­est soft­ware and be con­nected to an LTE net­work to re­ceive alerts.

Paul Tem­ple, Pel­morex’s se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of reg­u­la­tory and strate­gic af­fairs, said the live test did ex­actly what it was sup­posed to: iden­tify ar­eas where of­fi­cials can im­prove.

“It’s a com­pli­cated sys­tem,” he said. “When the real emer­gency hap­pens, you want to be able to ad­dress some of the is­sues be­fore that.”

Pel­morex op­er­ates a plat­form that al­lows emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials to log in and type a warn­ing mes­sage. It then pro­cesses the alert to make sure it com­plies with agreed-upon tech­ni­cal stan­dards be­fore send­ing it off to tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, satel­lite and wire­less providers. That re­lay process took about seven sec­onds in the test runs.

Of­fi­cials also have to man­age ex­pec­ta­tions since not ev­ery­one can re­ceive the alert.

“The ex­pec­ta­tion that ev­ery­one’s phone is go­ing to go off was not a re­al­is­tic one at this point of time,” Tem­ple said.

But oth­ers com­plained the alerts were too in­tru­sive when On­tario au­thor­i­ties is­sued an Am­ber Alert for a miss­ing boy on Mon­day. The child was from Thun­der Bay, prompt­ing ques­tions over whether it was nec­es­sary to alert Toronto res­i­dents 1,400 kilo­me­tres away since au­thor­i­ties can pin­point a distri­bu­tion area in the wire­less sys­tem.

The Kingston, Ont., po­lice de­part­ment said on so­cial me­dia it re­ceived sev­eral com­plaints, but that it had no con­trol over the alerts. It ad­vised res­i­dents to con­tact their ser­vice providers.

GRAEME ROY/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Telus Corp., which has a net­work shar­ing agree­ment with Bell Canada, says tech­ni­cal prob­lems pre­vented some of its cus­tomers from re­ceiv­ing the test mes­sages of the emer­gency sys­tems to be re­ceived on Mon­day.

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