Get ready to see Amber Alerts and other warnings pop up on your cellphone.
Federal regulators announced Thursday that they have ordered mobile-phone carriers to put in place a "wireless public alerting system." It is to be capable of relaying warnings within the year, and to be fully adopted by all industry players by April, 2018.
The move will ensure that public-safety officials have a means of notifying the public about natural disasters, child abductions that result in Amber Alerts, and other urgent situations as they happen, in the areas where they happen.
All this is being done as people turn away from conventional TV and radio broadcasters, and increasingly tune into whatever is happening on their cellphones.
This new directive, which comes from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, makes the ability to relay alerts a mandatory condition of licence for mobile phone carriers.
The move ends years of haggling over how and when Canada should implement such systems. Cellphone companies are being given a comfortable 24-month cushion to make the required changes, a grace period they had been lobbying for.
Not everyone wanted to wait as long. Some entities, such as the Ontario-based nuclear-energy company Bruce Power, had been clamouring for the CRTC to direct carriers to immediately start sending alerts via text-messaging technology.
Instead, Canadians will be eventually receiving warnings via a more sophisticated medium, over so-called long-term evolution (LTE), or 4G, mobile-phone networks that have been rolled out in recent years. Such networks will allow for more sophisticated pop-up warnings, involving bilingual banners, embedded pictures and distinct vibration settings.
"Canadians will hear the same alert tone as they currently do while listening to the radio or watching television," the CRTC said in a statement. "Alerts on mobile devices will also trigger a unique vibration cadence."
Rolling out the changes on LTE means the warnings can be highly localized, and maybe even precisely targeted.
"If you have a very specific situation, a shooter situation, where you wanted people to stay inside a building instead of going out, or not be going into another building – you could send this one message saying 'seek shelter,'" a spokesman for Canada's Wireless Telecommunications Association told The Globe last year.
One drawback, however, is that Canadians in the Far North may not be as able to receive alerts, given how they rely on different kinds of mobile-phone networks.
The CRTC said LTE networks are now available to more than 97 per cent of Canadians.
While the regulator has imposed fixed target dates, representatives of Canada's biggest mobile-phone companies say they can make sure they put systems in place in time.
"We look forward to having our system operational within the next year, as stipulated by the CRTC," said Richard Gilhooley, a spokeman for Telus Corp.
"We don't foresee any problem meeting the April, 2018, deadline," said Andrew Garas, a spokesman for Rogers Communications Inc.
The federal government's Public Safety Canada ministry will take the lead on deciding which kinds of warnings reach the public's cellphones.
Similar systems exist in the European Union, the U.S., Israel, Chile and Japan, the CRTC said.