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
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.
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.