In a June 21, 2023 proposal, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pitched expanded language access for wireless emergency alerts (WEAs), the automated text messages cell phone users receive related to geographically-targeted severe weather events.
Participation in the WEA system by wireless providers is voluntary — and according to the FCC’s proposal, out of 450 wireless providers in the US, only 76 do so — but requires adherence to the FCC’s technical and operational requirements.
The FCC now wants participating wireless providers to ensure that subscribers’ devices can translate English-language alert messages into users’ preferred languages, “by taking advantage of machine translation (MT) technologies.”
“This proposal would address alerting authorities’ need to be able to communicate with people in their communities in languages other than English or Spanish, irrespective of the alerting authorities’ in-house language translation capabilities,” the FCC’s proposal states.
The proposal suggests that wireless providers use device-level APIs to leverage pre-installed MT tech, such as Google Cloud Translation or Apple Translate, with the app accessing and translating the original English-language message before presenting the translated alert (with or without the original text) to the user.
Alternatively, the FCC posits that perhaps MT software or functionality might be deployed in participating providers’ networks, ideally to preempt the need for users to purchase new devices.
In particular, the FCC focused on what it described as the 13 most commonly spoken languages in the US (in addition to English): Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Korean, Russian, Haitian Creole, German, Hindi, Portuguese, and Italian.
Machine Translation: Proceed with Caution
While the FCC’s proposal speaks to mainstream knowledge of MT’s improving quality, the Commission hedges its bets, requesting comment on the accuracy of MT technologies for the above languages and asking, “How accurate must machine translation be to effectively convey emergency information?”
Beyond MT, the proposal also asks whether text-to-speech functionality can be enabled for blind and low-vision subscribers who prefer languages other than English.
But a July 2023 comment letter submitted by a group of attorneys general objects to the idea of using MT without human review for emergency content.
“We are concerned that relying on machine translation to translate WEAs from English to other languages may result in inaccurate alerts,” they wrote. “We therefore urge the Commission to adopt the alternative approach of requiring installation on cell phones of translated alert templates prepared for the National Weather Service and other federal alert originators by human translators.”
The group of signatories includes attorneys general from Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, plus representation from the City of New York.
“We are concerned that relying on machine translation to translate WEAs from English to other languages may result in inaccurate alerts” — James et al.
Their recommendation builds on the method currently used by New York City and other local governments to issue emergency text alerts in multiple languages. The New York City Emergency Management Department issues template-based alerts which are then translated, by humans, and vetted by native speakers from the relevant language communities.
“However, those are ‘opt-in’ systems that require people to sign up for the alerts,” the letter states. “Many immigrant communities are not aware that these alerting services exist at all, let alone that the alerts are available in languages they can understand.”
The letter urges the FCC to require participating wireless providers to pre-install translated alert templates on cell phones. Incoming English-language alerts would trigger the translated template to display automatically.
A Longer List of Target Languages
As for which languages to target, the attorneys general advise the FCC to adjust the list of languages at least every three years, “based on the most recently available American Community Survey data on spoken languages and LEP rates.”
“Even the Commission’s current proposed list of 13 languages is based on 2019 American Community Survey data that does not reflect U.S. immigration trends in recent years,” they added. “By periodically incorporating evolving data and public input on language and LEP trends into the WEA regulations, the Commission can continually make the WEA system more accessible to the country’s newer immigrant communities.”
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and others are pushing for emergency alerts to be translated into at least 25 languages other than English, instead of 13, supporting all languages spoken by at least 300,000 individuals in the United States over the age of five.
The FCC estimates that expanding language access via its proposed method will cost at least USD 39.9m — a one-time cost to be borne by participating wireless providers. The breakdown of the estimate includes hourly rates for engineers, but translators are conspicuously absent from the calculations.
Image: New York, NY – May 26, 2022: Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a joint announcement with Mayor Eric Adams at AG New York office.