The bill that funds the U.S. military typically only impacts radio in terms of how much money is allocated for recruitment advertising. The 2021 Defense Authorization Act has that. But it also includes the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement Act or “READI Act” (S. 2693) with new additions to the Emergency Alert System rules. The House passed the bill earlier, and despite the threat of a presidential veto the legislation was approved in the Senate on Friday with a veto-proof 84-13 majority.
The READI Act would require radio and television stations to repeat alerts issued by the President, rather than limit them to a single airing. That repeat would only apply to warnings of national security events, such as a missile threat, terror attack, or other act of war and not apply to more typical warnings, such as a weather alert, AMBER Alert, or disaster alert. The proposal would also direct the Federal Communications Commission to create a reporting system for false alerts so the FCC can track when they occur and examine their causes.
An earlier version of the bill would have expanded the reach of EAS into audio and video online streaming services, such as Spotify, Pandora, and Netflix. But under the bills passed in the Senate and House, the FCC will be required to complete an inquiry into the idea and report back its findings to Congress.
The push to update EAS rules was jumpstarted by a Jan. 13, 2018 incident in Hawaii when a false EAS activation about an impending missile attack on the island was accidentally distributed across radio, television and wireless networks. The FCC concluded a combination of human error and inadequate safeguards inside the state’s emergency management office led to a drill exercise becoming widely distributed.
The bipartisan legislation, authored by U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), would also eliminate the ability to opt out of receiving certain federal alerts, including missile alerts, on mobile phones to ensure more people receive emergency alerts.
“When a missile alert went out across Hawaii in 2018, some people never got the message on their phones, while others missed it on their TVs and radios. Even though it was a false alarm, the missile alert highlighted real ways we can improve the way people get emergency alerts,” said Schatz. “Our bill, which will soon become law, fixes some of these issues and will help make sure that in an emergency, the public gets the right information – on their phones, TVs, radios, and computers – as quickly as possible.”
The National Association of Broadcasters has thrown its support behind the bill, even though it would enlarge the EAS requirements. “Local radio and television broadcasters are proud to play the vital role of first informers to keep their communities safe and are committed to providing relevant and up-to-date information when lives are at risk,” NAB President Gordon Smith wrote in a letter to lawmakers last February.
The NAB is not the only trade group to advocate for passage. The legislation also has the backing of the NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, the Internet Association, CTIA – The Wireless Association, and the Wireless Infrastructure Association.
President Trump has suggested he might veto the $740 billion defense authorization that does not include a repeal of Section 230 which gives tech companies protection from lawsuits over comments posted by their users. But Republicans and Democrats alike have long resisted efforts to include non-defense related measures in the must-pass bill. Trump also objects to language in the bill that would require Confederate bases and military installations to be renamed within three years, which has also had broad support in Congress.