How 'snowmageddon' alerts hit cellphones

Warning bells went off in the newsroom on Thursday. Not the usual ones about breaking events and looming deadlines, but rather an "Imminent severe alert," about the coming blizzard, that popped up on smartphone screens.

The messages caught everyone off guard, not because they weren't aware of the storm — the Weather Channel made that impossible. Rather, no one realized that their phones could do that, or how, or why. Messages arrived on Android phones and iPhones, T-Mobile and Verizon models. And no, it wasn't from the Weather Chanel app.

Instead the alarms came from the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which was set up by the FCC, FEMA and most wireless providers in April, 2012. It includes three kinds of alerts — messages from the President, warnings about "severe man-made or natural disasters" and AMBER Alerts about missing children.

The system incudes the big four providers — AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile — as well as smaller companies such as Cricket and Bluegrass Cellular. All told, those companies account for 97 percent of cellphone customers, says CTIA, the industry group of wireless companies.

But far from 97 percent of subscribers can get the service. In fact, only a few models — and not always the newest — are able to receive the alerts. And wireless providers offer varying amounts of information. Sprint and Verizon support the iPhone 5 (Verizon also supports the iPhone 4s, if upgraded to iOS 6 software). AT&T doesn't list any of its iPhone models. And Cricket, which also sells iPhones, mentions WEA support only for the Blackberry Curve 9350.

Sprint's website doesn't mention anything other than the iPhone 5, and T-Mobile doesn't list any phones at all.

Apple's rivals fare even worse. Only Verizon supports the ultra-popular Samsung Galaxy S III; although AT&T does offer support on the S II, along with seven other phones. Verizon lists by far the most WEA-capable models — nearly 40.

How can you tell if your phone can receive WEA alerts? According to CTIA and the phone companies, you should see a "Wireless Emergency Alerts Capable" badge on the box. But that may not help you if you're shopping online. We checked the specs for iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III models that the providers said had the capability and found nothing on their webpages. To make things more confusing, the service is sometimes also know as CMAS or PLAN. But we didn't find those, either. [See also: 2-Minute Expert: How Much Smartphone Data Do I Need?]

And even if you do have WEA, the messages may not always be helpful. In our case, we knew about the coming storm long before the alerts — which rolled in over the course of about an hour. Even some people with the same carrier got the word at different times.

In some other cases, the alerts are simply false alarms. "The tornado warning was a good 30 to 50 miles south of my location and we had no warnings posted by the weather service for our area," wrote a customer on Sprint's support page in July. "Sunday's alert was for a tornado warning 78 miles west of me and it was heading south east.  Not even in our direction."

Clearly the new system still has a way to go. But fortunately, people in the Northeast are likely to know that a storm is coming whether or not they got the popup alert.

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