Scott Shortliffe to the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence

Statements

Ottawa, Ontario
January 29, 2018

Scott Shortliffe, Chief Consumer Officer
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

Check against delivery

Madam Chair,

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) welcomes the opportunity to summarize its limited, but important, role in ensuring Canadians have access to reliable and efficient public alerts.

Public Safety Canada is the federal lead in the National Public Alerting System, but the CRTC, as the regulator of the communication system, has played a pivotal part in its creation and ongoing evolution.

The current system consists of three components:

  • federal, provincial, territorial and, in some cases, municipal emergency management officials (such as fire marshals, police officers and public health personnel) who issue public alert messages
  • the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System, which collects and aggregates alerts, and disseminates them to the message distributors, and
  • last-mile distributors, including radio and television stations, as well as cable and satellite companies, that broadcast emergency alert messages.

The Commission’s role in this system is limited to its jurisdiction to regulate broadcasters, television service providers and telecommunications service providers within Canada. Currently, the CRTC requires all licensed broadcasters and television service providers to implement a public alerting system and distribute alerts on television and over the radio.

Emergency alerts notify Canadians of imminent danger to life or property. These are time-sensitive events that involve federal, provincial or territorial governments, their respective emergency management organizations, and private-sector partners.

In 2009, the Commission accepted Pelmorex Communications’ commitment to act as the national aggregator and disseminator of emergency public alert messages. This commitment was made in Pelmorex’s application to the CRTC for The Weather Network and MétéoMédia’s mandatory distribution on the basic television service.

The National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System operated by Pelmorex only accepts emergency alerts from authorized government agencies, which are then made available to broadcasters and other media distributors who disseminate them to Canadians. The activities of the provincial, territorial and federal participants are harmonized through an overarching coordinating body, Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management, which is co-chaired by Public Safety Canada.

At a time when a growing number of Canadians are ‘cutting the cord,’ replacing cable and satellite television services with online and mobile devices, it is vital that they continue to receive public safety warnings.

That was the motivation behind the CRTC’s decision to expand the requirement to disseminate emergency alerts to include mobile devices. In April 2017, the CRTC directed wireless service providers to ensure their long-term evolution (LTE) networks are capable of distributing emergency alert messages by April 6, 2018.

This does not mean that Canadians can expect to receive emergency alerts as of April of this year. The actual start date for the expanded service has not yet been determined.

First, the CRTC must be satisfied that the telecommunications industry has met all applicable standards and that a functional system is in place. The Commission has been clear that the networks need to be designed and built in a way that mitigates the risk of service failures.

The Commission tasked the CRTC Interconnection Steering Committee, a group comprised of government and industry representatives, to resolve outstanding issues before the mandatory distribution of wireless emergency alert messages begins. These issues include the development of a schedule for tests, along with a public awareness and education campaign.

The Interconnection Steering Committee delivered its final reports last fall. The CRTC is currently examining them closely and still inquiring into a few elements. Once we are satisfied, we will require wireless service providers to begin distributing emergency alert messages.

And second, emergency management organizations must also prepare their systems to be able to issue alerts to wireless devices.

In the meantime, the CRTC has set targets to expedite the availability of mobile devices that can receive public alerts. By this April, 50% of the mobile devices sold by Canadian telecommunications service providers should be capable of receiving alerts. By April 2019, all devices sold by providers should be alert-capable.

Service providers will also need to notify their subscribers with non-LTE-compatible mobile devices that they will be unable to receive emergency alert messages on their mobile devices.

During the first three years of the wireless system’s operation, carriers will have to file annual reports that confirm the network implementation of alert distribution capability and interoperability with the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System.

These changes will directly affect the majority of Canadians who own mobile devices.

Given the importance of warning the public of impending threats to their personal safety, it will not be possible to opt out of receiving wireless emergency alerts once the distribution of wireless messages begins. The coordinating body, Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management, has established a definitive list of the types of emergency alert messages for immediate broadcast by alert distributors.

Whenever these emergency alerts are issued, the same message will be sent to all cellphones within the geographic alerting area, including users who are roaming or visiting from other countries.

Canadians will hear the same alert tone on their wireless devices as they currently do while listening to the radio or watching TV. Alerts will also trigger a unique vibration when a message is issued and contain a bilingual banner.

The Commission has worked hard to ensure that Canadians are able to receive the information they need to take the necessary steps to protect themselves.

Although its involvement in the National Public Alerting System is confined within its regulatory mandate, the Commission takes pride in having helped to establish this critical service that saves lives and safeguards property.

With the addition of wireless alerts to the already effective National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System, Canadians soon will be notified of imminent or unfolding threats – in whatever way they choose to be informed.

Madam Chair, we are working closely with our provincial, territorial and federal partners, emergency management officials and other stakeholders to ensure that our communication system safeguards and warns Canadians about potential emergencies and natural disasters. We welcome the opportunity to brief the Committee on this work.

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