GCI and the EAS CAP Deadline

Alaska's cold temperatures, ferocious storms, long winters and wide open spaces create a landscape in which dissemination of emergency information is taken very seriously. EAS CAP can be a matter of life and death anywhere. It can be so more often in Alaska.

Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., better known throughout the cable industry as GCI, is the major operator in the state. Headend Engineer Chris Brandt said the operator has about 200,000 subscribers served by 19 headends. Some, he said, are 700 or 800 miles away from the nearest company facility. Part of that journey is more likely to be made by boat or plane than by truck.

The current scenario -- or the one that exists before all the changes tied to the June 30 deadline to have EAS CAP hardware and software deployed and operational -- relies on a sometimes unreliable "daisy chain" in which alerts are distributed to some of those remote headends by low power radio broadcasters.

The LP broadcasters will remain, but one of GCI's goals in the CAP transition is to improve reliability. "There now are a lot of gaping holes," Brandt said. "CAP is an attempt to eliminate the daisy chain and have a central point to deploy the messages from."

A lot is riding on the way in which the upgrade is made. The first major decision GCI made was whether to upgrade existing equipment through intermediary devices or do a "rip and replace" and install new equipment. Brandt, who did the due diligence, found that new equipment was the more prudent approach.

The choice was Monroe Electronics' One-Net SE. Brandt said GCI bought 20 units last July and August. It is a more expensive option, but Brandt said the cost was outweighed by the new features on the device, such as the Web-based graphical user interface and an audio capture that allows for playback to help determine sound quality and find the source of any problem. Brandt also said that more features are included as standard on the One-Net than on competing equipment. He found Monroe generally more responsive.

More Internet Involvement

Successfully updating the EAS and CAP elements to comply with the new rules relies on sound engineering procedures, Brandt said. The CAP infrastructure, by definition, relies more deeply on the Internet. Thus, it is important that operators install, upgrade and continually monitor firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs) and other software that ensures the security of their networks. He said operators should make sure that enough ports are available to allow segregation of the management and Internet feed ports.

If devices are being replaced, Brandt said, it may be necessary to buy "matchboxes" to balance audio and make accommodations for analog pass-through capabilities of the low power broadcast signals. He also said the attention paid to meeting the June 30 deadline can be a good opportunity to some housekeeping, especially if the low power broadcasters still play a role. "It's a good time to order new antennas, get new feed lines, and a get good signal into the radio," Brandt said. He added that it also is a good time to replace audio cables.

Finally, Brandt suggested that there can be miscommunications as information that likely came from the vendors' marketing department is translated into what an engineering staff needs to go forward. Most modern cable operators, however, likely are familiar with that issue.

Bob Schaeffer, the president of Technology Planners, a Fond du Lac, WI, engineering services company, suggested that the first step for EAS CAP upgrading is finding out precisely what the operator is working with. "Today's headends have very complicated EAS systems," he said. "There is one for analog, a different method for clear QAM channels, a third for set-top box-encrypted channels …. A good way to start is to make sure those existing systems are functioning. That's a baseline beginning point."

Schaeffer agreed with Brandt's point that a linchpin decision is whether to build on existing gear or to replace it. He suggested that consultation with the maker of the equipment can settle this matter quickly. He said clear lines of communications with vendors are vital because the rules aren't finalized. Operators must ensure that anything they buy can be upgraded between now and the deadline via software or firmware updates.

The bottom line, Schaeffer said, is that the June 30 deadline can be seen as a time to step back and make sure that the new rules are met -- and that the foundation upon which they will operate is sound. "It is a very good opportunity to look at the whole EAS system," he said. "It is not something that gets daily attention. It is the kind of system that you don't know it isn't working until it doesn't work."

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Reach him at carl@btreport.net.

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