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FCC upgrades text alert system after criticism of NYC manhunt

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Emergency alerts are getting longer, richer, and smarter

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When the NYPD wanted to get New Yorkers looking for Ahmed Rahami after a bombing in New York earlier this month, they sent out a single text to the city’s smartphones: "Wanted: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen." Limited to 90 characters, there was no room for a picture or a more detailed description, which some criticized as heightening panic and leading to a "Muslim hunt."

"We can do more with these messages."

Now, that system is getting an upgrade. Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted to expanding those alerts from 90 to 360 characters for 4G and LTE networks, and include support for embedded photos and links. First proposed in November, the changes require carriers partnered with WEA to implement many of the new capabilities within one year. Since the same features have existed for years in conventional texts, the order is unlikely to present significant technical challenges.

"We can do more with these messages," said FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "Vague directives in text about where to find more information about a suspect — just as we saw in New York — are not good enough."

The FCC order will build out narrower geotargeting capabilities from the WEA system, allowing devices to screen out alerts targeted to outside areas in the same cell coverage region. That was a concern during the New York bombings, where a specific "shelter in place" WEA alert meant for residents in the immediate Chelsea region ended up reaching phones across the city. FCC officials also referenced alerts sent out during flooding in Baton Rouge, which would have been more effective had they been more geographically specific.