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

Speech

September 24, 2018
Ottawa, Ontario

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

Check against delivery

Thank you, Madam Chair.

My name is Scott Shortliffe and I am the CRTC’s Chief Consumer Officer. With me today is my colleague Eric Bowles, Legal Counsel.

We appreciate this opportunity to update you on the CRTC’s activities related to Canada’s public alerting system, especially following a weekend when the importance of emergency alerts was visible in the National Capital Region.  CBC News has reported that several families in Dunrobin, Ontario, credited wireless public alerting with saving the lives of their children during the tornado on Friday.  That said, a lot of other things have taken place, and been accomplished, since my last appearance at this Committee in February.

Before outlining those activities, let me first remind you that the CRTC is just one of many players with a role in public alerting. These are time-sensitive events that involve federal, provincial and territorial governments as well as private-sector partners.

Emergency alert messages are issued by their respective emergency management organizations, such as fire marshals and police. Pelmorex is acting as the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination (NAAD) System administrator, which disseminates alerts to broadcasters. The CRTC’s job is to regulate the broadcasting and telecommunications service providers that distribute alerts to the public through the communications system. Public Safety Canada has the federal lead on the National Public Alerting System. It coordinates the development of public alerting policies with federal, provincial and territorial stakeholders.

As you know, wireless service providers had to be ready to relay emergency alerts as of April 6th of this year. Since my last appearance before this committee, the Commission has required that all wireless service providers participate in the national public alerting system and distribute any relevant alerts received from that date onwards. The expanded system – publicly branded as “Alert Ready” – now warns Canadians about emergencies not just on radio and TV, but also on cellphones.

All wireless service providers must distribute public emergency alert messages on their LTE networks. Not all cellphones are compatible with the system. As of April 2018, 50% of new devices sold had to be compatible with the system. This will increase to 100% next April. Over time, all devices will become compatible. The distribution of wireless public alert is in addition to the alerts being distributed by television and radio broadcasters.

The updated system has quickly proven itself, reinforcing the importance of sending messages to Canadians’ mobile devices.  However, everyone involved in the enhanced system would likely concede there have been some growing pains.

These became apparent during national Emergency Preparedness Week, when a series of public tests were carried out.  These tests were intended to verify the readiness of the system as a whole, and also as an important way to introduce wireless alerting to Canadians, and to make them aware of the tone and vibration cadence that distinguishes emergency alerts from regular text messages.

The first tests, in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, were conducted on May 7th.  Tests in 10 other provinces and territories were carried out on May 9th. In addition to wireless messages, these test alerts were also distributed on television and radio.

As happened when emergency alerts were initially issued by broadcasters, the wireless system was not perfect the first time out.  While the tests worked seamlessly on radio and TV, three provinces experienced issues with wireless alerts during the two days of testing.

Alerts on the Bell and Telus networks in Ontario did not pass through.  That means only 50% people in Ontario with compatible devices received wireless alert messages during the test. In Manitoba, emergency test messages distributed by Telus did not pass through to the company’s cellphone subscribers, which affected 7% of cellphone customers in that province.

In Quebec, a coding error resulted in none of the test messages being passed to compatible phones. Pelmorex can address the underlying concerns.

There were other issues for some consumers, such as receiving banners that should not have appeared. There also was some confusion among Canadians about which cellphones are compatible and able to receive wireless emergency alerts.

I would like to note that successful test alerts were completed in Alberta, British-Colombia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New-Brunswick, as well as in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

I also want to reinforce that the tests accomplished what was needed – to create awareness amongst Canadians and to identify any weaknesses and ensure they are addressed. The Commission has been clear that the networks need to be designed and built in a way that mitigates the risk of service failures.

Continued testing in the next years will help address any new issues that may arise with new technologies or with new providers or customers.

For its part, immediately following the tests, the CRTC reached-out to Pelmorex and wireless service providers to identify where the problems lie. The Commission ordered reports on what went wrong and how these problems were being rectified.

Independent of the reports ordered after the public tests, the Commission had required the wireless service providers to file reports serving to confirm that their respective networks were interoperable with the NAAD System and capable of alert distribution.  In these reports, wireless service providers provided information relating to their LTE network coverage, the number of alert-compatible devices offered for sale and the penetration of such devices amongst their subscriber base. Those reports are posted on the Commission’s website.

Pelmorex and wireless service providers have reported to the CRTC that all the early problems experienced during the testing of the system visible to end users have been fixed. Rogers, Bell, Telus and Freedom Mobile corrected all known technical issues shortly after they were identified.  Most wireless service providers have conducted subsequent invisible test alerts to further confirm the challenges have been resolved.

As of late August, close to 100 updates and wireless alerts had been issued to warn Canadians of high-risk emergencies.  These ranged from dangerously high water levels and flooding in Alberta, to wildfires in Saskatchewan, to Amber Alerts in Ontario and Saskatchewan, to drinking water advisories in several communities and tornado watches in numerous provinces. And here in the National Capital Region we had wireless alerts connected with two tornados last Friday.

Despite these successes, this system is still fairly new and new challenges can emerge. Just last week, an Amber Alert in Saskatchewan was delayed by three hours on the wireless platforms. Previous alerts in the province had passed through successfully. The Commission is following up to determine what happened in this specific situation, but it is cases like this that demonstrate the importance of continued testing.

In addition to testing, our experience has also shown that Canadians are still not used to the system and have many questions about what phones are compatible and how the system works.  Continued public education will be important as we move forward.

The CRTC continues to monitor the system to see what further improvements are within the Commission’s areas of responsibility and are needed to make sure Canadians receive the information they require to protect themselves.

We would now be pleased to answer your questions.

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