FCC commissioners this week approved an order to establish a program for commercial wireless carriers to deliver text-message alerts and critical information to their customers during disasters or other emergencies, although many questions remain regarding its implementation.

Passed late Wednesday to comply with a statutory deadlines included the in the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, the FCC order creates the framework for a Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). While carriers are not required to participate, all customers of participating carriers will be sent text-message information in emergency situations unless a customer has opted out of the program.

Noting the proliferation of wireless devices in the United States, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a prepared statement that the CMAS is an “important next step in our efforts to help ensure that the American public has the information they need to take action to protect themselves” during emergencies.

Three types of messages that CMAS is designed to carry include presidential alerts for national emergencies; imminent-threat alerts to provide information about significant risks, such as a national or man-made disaster; and child-abduction or AMBER Alert emergency information.

FCC commissioners agreed that a federal agency should serve as the alert aggregator and gateway for emergency information distributed on the CMAS. While there was speculation that FEMA would take that role, no federal entity has taken such action.

“If no agency assumes this role, the rules we enact today will never become effective and Americans will never receive the protection of emergency alerts delivered to their mobile phones,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a prepared statement.

Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said existing wireless networks have some capacity limits for text messaging, which is a operates on a sequential basis. As a result, current text-message systems may not be ideal if timeliness is a priority in the alert-delivery program, he said.

“If I were going to notify 20 million people on a network, how long would it be until the 20 millionth SMS went out? I don’t know how to calculate that, but I bet it’s going to be a long time,” Seybold said. “There’s no doubt that it’s needed. I just don’t know that the technology used for text messaging is the right way to go.”

Seybold also questioned whether some carriers would look at the potential network congestion created by an obligation to deliver a flood of emergency text alerts and choose not to participate in the optional program.

Indeed, the FCC prohibits carriers from charging customers for any emergency alerts they send. However, the order does not discount the possibility of carriers charging their entire customer base a flat fee to pay for network upgrades needed for the carrier to meet the FCC’s CMAS guidelines.

But Richard Mirgon, first vice president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), said carriers’ senior technology officials that worked with him on the FCC’s Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee (CMSAAC)—the body that created the recommendations that served as the foundation of the FCC order—did not indicate that there would be technical issues.

“We were left with the very distinct impression and understanding that [carriers] were good all the way to the handset,” Mirgon said. “To me, the part yet to be done are the gateways and the protocols for local government to be able to input the messages.”

In fact, Mirgon noted that, as the CMSAAC meetings proceeded, it became clearer to him that commercial carriers were viewing an emergency-alert program as another way to improve the location-based technology in their networks. By doing so, carriers would be able to meet new location requirements for 911 calls and, eventually, open the door to a location-based advertising market that carriers have long anticipated, he said.

Mirgon and FCC sources both indicated that most messages would be delivered on a countywide or regional basis, meaning multiple regional gateways would be needed in addition to the federal-agency gateway.

Commercial wireless carriers were represented on the CMSAAC committee, so FCC sources expressed hope that carriers will participate in the program. Verizon Wireless applauded the FCC order in a press release, with Vice President Steven Zipperstein calling it “a significant step toward ensuring alerts that serve the public interest will soon be available to wireless users.”

Commercial wireless trade association CTIA declined to comment on the matter for this article, because the organization is “still studying it,” a spokesman said.