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FCC says emergency alerts should move online

Government wants to extend alert system to the Internet, but details on how that would work are scant.

When conceived in the dark days of the Cold War, CONELRAD and the Emergency Broadcast System were intended to alert Americans to an impending nuclear attack.

Such an assault never happened, of course, but EBS--best known for its "this is a only a test" pronouncements--is occasionally invoked when hurricanes or tornados loom.

Now the federal government has extended the emergency alert system to digital cable, satellite TV and satellite radio. Digital cable and satellite radio have until the end of 2006 to comply, and satellite TV has until May 31, 2007.

Also, in a one-page statement released Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission said without elaboration that it was contemplating an extension of the alert system to the Internet, wireless systems and video delivered over fiber--such as what Verizon Communications plans to do with its Fios service.

"A large and growing percentage of television viewers and radio listeners receive their programming from digital media," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Thursday. An upgraded system "should have built-in redundancy features. Among other things, it should incorporate the Internet."

The concept isn't exactly new; the portal Terra Lycos proposed a Web-alert system back in 2002 but was ignored by the Department of Homeland Security. Still, it's unclear how it would work in practice. Would the FCC hand Web sites like News.com, CNN.com, Google.com and Yahoo.com mandatory text to post, for instance? Might millions of e-mail messages be sent to customers of U.S. Internet providers?

The FCC hasn't offered details. Those are expected to be published by the end of the year in an official request for public comment. That will include asking about "the delivery of emergency alert messages through text-based messaging delivered by SMS or cell broadcast," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. (Another effort to do the same thing, called the Partnership for Public Warning, was created in 2002 but closed its doors earlier this year.)

The national alert network, now called the Emergency Alert System, has encountered criticism as yet another expensive government boondoggle that's less necessary in the age of readily available news. The system was never activated on Sept. 11, 2001, even in the New York and Washington metropolitan areas, for instance. And local and state governments failed to activate for Hurricane Katrina.