When we were children watching Saturday morning cartoons, there was nothing more annoying than a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System (EBS). The colored panels and loud, piercing noises would startle us and – far worse – keep us from seeing how Duke, Sgt. Slaughter, Leatherneck, Roadblock, Cover Girl and Snake Eyes would overcome the latest evil scheme from Cobra Commander and his henchmen on G.I. Joe.
Fast forward to today. As adults, we may not have gotten to see the forces of good vanquish the bad guys, but we do know why we need those emergency alerts and why it was probably for the best that they were tested frequently.
An untested alarm is always off. Testing that emergency broadcast system was an essential part of preparing for a real-life emergency – confirming for the government that the systems and tools that it would use to notify the public of a pending emergency would function when they needed it.
Today, the EBS has been replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS), but the function is still the same – notify the public of natural disasters and weather emergencies that may be coming their way. It also functions to enable the President of the United States to address all Americans within 10 minutes should the need arise.
This is an incredibly important service. A natural disaster or other emergency situation could be considerably more damaging and deadly if it strikes an unprepared population or location. By warning people of impending danger early, they can evacuate, prepare themselves or otherwise work towards mitigating the damage to themselves and their property. The EAS accomplishes this by notifying Americans about emergency situations through television, radio and messages to their cell phones.
But what about the people who don’t have access to those?
Country roads aren’t information superhighways
If you live in a major metropolitan area, having access to more television channels than you could ever watch, high speed broadband Internet access and radio stations of every conceivable format is something that you probably take for granted every single day. But for many Americans, they’re simply not available.
America is home to many geographically isolated territories, and many states in the union have large rural areas. In many cases, these rural areas and isolated territories simply don’t have access to the vast array of television channels, high speed Internet access and cellular networks that their fellow Americans take for granted every day.
You only have to look at the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) own terrestrial broadband reports and numbers to see how different urban and rural areas are when it comes to communications services. According to the FCC, “…over 26% of Americans in rural areas and 32% of Americans in tribal lands lack coverage from fixed terrestrial 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband, as compared to only 1.7% of Americans in urban areas.”
It’s a similar story if you look at the combination of what the FCC considers broadband and mobile LTE coverage: “…93.4% of the population, are covered by both 25 Mbps/3 Mbps fixed terrestrial service and mobile LTE with a minimum advertised speed of 5 Mbps/1 Mbps…In rural areas, 73.2% of Americans are covered by both services, as opposed to 98.3% of Americans in urban areas…”
While this certainly can impact the quality of life, connectivity and communication options available to these individuals, it can also have a much more significant and dire consequence – it can keep them from receiving the emergency notifications that many of their fellow Americans can receive via two or three different sources.
If you think this is a problem that only impacts a few states, you’d be sorely mistaken. Simply try to get a radio signal, a cable package or high-speed broadband Internet in a rural valley on the coasts and you, too, could be left disconnected. But, what can they do about it?
A case study in connectivity from Alaska
When it comes to geographically isolated, rural areas in America, few places can hold a candle to the country’s largest – and arguably most naturally beautiful – state. Of Alaska’s 737,438 people, approximately 239,319 live in rural areas.
With the state being geographically isolated form the contiguous United States, featuring harsh climates and having a large population living in rural areas, it should come as no surprise that basic radio, television and Internet access can be difficult there. But that hasn’t kept Alaska from finding a unique way to ensure that everyone can still be notified in emergency situations.
Utilizing satellite connectivity and omnidirectional antennas, the State of Alaska delivers public access television and other services directly to their citizens. This isn’t just for entertainment, however. When emergency situations happen, the news or entertainment content that the station is currently displaying is preempted by emergency alerts.
The combination of satellite connectivity and omnidirectional antennas are key to this program’s success. The satellite service enables the transmission of a signal to practically anywhere on Earth – including into the most remote and rural places on the globe.
Alaska is considered the 47th most connected state in the United States by highspeedinternet.com. Satellite is the best and most efficient way to deliver connectivity to a place where a percentage of the population has little access to the same communications services that are available in more urban areas across the country. But this isn’t just about delivering communications services to people in rural areas, it’s about giving them fair warning and information about emergency situations and natural disasters. Which means that satellite is effectively helping to keep Alaskans in rural parts of the state safe.
And if it can work in Alaska, a state with 30,000 brown bears (that’s more than one bear for every eight humans that live in rural Alaska), it can work in other rural areas across the country. If Alaska Public Broadcasting is evidence of anything, it’s that every American deserves a warning when disaster could strike, and that there’s no reason why any American can’t get one.