WEA Performed Well in Nationwide Test

Most carriers and their customers reported successfully receiving the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) test message on October 4, 2023. The FCC recently released its report on the outcome of the nationwide test of the WEA and the Emergency Alert System (EAS). (EAS results are discussed in a story further down.)

The trial marks the third nationwide WEA test, but only the second directed to all WEA-capable cellular devices. To reach all mobile devices, the WEA portion of the test was sent as a National Alert, which subscribers cannot opt out of receiving.

The test highlighted areas where WEA delivery can be improved, such as ensuring more consistent delivery and resolving issues concerning alert message audio tone and vibration cadence, according to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. 

Following the nationwide test, the New York City Emergency Management Department (NYCEM) administered a survey. NYCEM reported that of 1,405 responses received, 94.2 percent of respondents received the WEA test message. The 5.8 percent of respondents who reported they did not receive the WEA test message provided a number of explanations, including: spotty service, on the subway/lacking cellular coverage, mobile phone turned off, phone in airplane mode, phone on “Do Not Disturb,” and using the phone for a voice call.

Forty-four percent of respondents cited no known reason for not receiving the message. For those respondents who did not receive a WEA message, 7.7 percent listed AT&T as their wireless provider, 18.5 percent listed T-Mobile, 33.8 percent listed Verizon, 15.4 percent listed “Other,” and 24.6 percent provided no response. 

NYCEM’s survey also revealed approximately 19.4 percent of respondents who received the WEA test did not receive the full WEA test with complete sounds/haptics. Of those, 49.2 percent did not have their devices set on vibrate and/or silent.

The Commission received 77 informal complaints from the public. The complaints included: (1) non-receipt of the test alert message; (2) the inability to opt out of receiving the test; (3) the loudness of the audio attention signal; and (4) missing tone and/or vibration. The Commission also received several informal complaints that the test alert message was received in Spanish when the device user expected to receive it in English.

Carriers that reported their results to the FCC were: AT&T (NYSE: T); Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) Health; Cellcom; C Spire; DISH (NASDAQ: SATS); Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Fi; T-Mobile (NASDAQ: TMUS); UScellular (NYSE: USM); and Verizon (NYSE: VZ). They told the agency after the test:  

  • The providers reported receiving the test alert from FEMA as early as 14:18:03 EDT and as late as 14:18:12 EDT.
  • The providers transmitted the test alert message as early as 14:18:04 EDT and as late as 14:18:19 EDT.
  • Several providers experienced “anomalies” during the test:
  •  AT&T reported a fiber cut that affected nearly 30 physical sites in the Dallas/Fort Worth and West Texas markets. Service was restored approximately seven minutes after the initiation of the test. Once service was restored, the alert would have been transmitted to those subscribers that did not receive it.
  •  Best Buy reported that eight subscribers did not receive the test alert message. One of its Jitterbug Flip 2 devices in San Diego, CA did not emit the audio attention signal and vibration cadence.
  •  T-Mobile subscribers (and subscribers to MVNOs who take service from T-Mobile) reported receiving the WEA test alert message in Spanish even though they had not changed the device’s default language of English. The issue was limited to Android devices running the Android R or newer Operating System, which have since been patched to address this issue.
  •  UScellular reported that some of their test devices displayed “Presidential Alert” rather than “National Alert.”
  •  Verizon reported that 1.663 seconds elapsed between receipt of the test alert message from FEMA IPAWS and Verizon’s transmission of the test alert message to subscribers due to the large number of cell sites in their network and the need for the two mated Cell Broadcast Entity facilities to coordinate the delivery of the English and Spanish versions of alert.

Responses from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon revealed that the issues seen in the 2022 WEA performance exercise did not recur during the 2023 nationwide test. For example, during the 2022 test, Verizon reported that two redundant Virtual Private Network paths between FEMA IPAWS and Verizon failed. 

Meanwhile, AT&T reported that it observed five instances where FEMA IPAWS incorrectly sent the alert to AT&T’s inactive Cell Broadcast Center in Allen, TX, rather than the correct CBC in Bothell, WA. Neither provider reported a similar occurrence during the 2023 nationwide test. The agency said the improvement is likely due to “initiation of the 2023 test alert via Common Alerting Protocol, which introduced additional resiliency that was not available during the over-the-air-only 2021 nationwide test.”

The bureau recommends that Congress require all Commercial Mobile Service providers to support WEA. Forty-four percent of respondents who reported they did not receive the WEA test message did not know why the alert was not received. 

Requiring all Commercial Mobile Service providers to support WEA would “enhance public safety by ensuring greater consistency in the delivery of life-saving alerts to the public, making it a more reliable and effective warning tool for alerting authorities nationwide,” said the agency.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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