Friday, May 18, 2012

Wireless Emergency Alerts - A Good Idea?

A USA Today news item caught my eye some days ago with the interesting title of Extreme-weather text alerts set to begin.

It struck me as a non-event, as surely we have exhaustively sliced and diced alerts over SMS, email, voice and mobile apps for every type of group and community, from large ones to a single user. Further investigation reveals a CTIA Consumer Info Page which (to paraphrase government speak) states that the FCC and FEMA, together with participating carriers are offering Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). This was announced by the CTIA as it was mandated to be ready by April 2012 by the WARN (Warning, Alert & Response Network) Act. This may seem like acronym hell, but is apparently quite normal!

But wait, there is more: not only is this service good for alerting people of natural disasters and AMBER messages, but Congress also designated a special kind of message called a Presidential Alert, which is required to run over mobile networks as well as the normal broadcast media.

This is interesting.....

First: What the technology really is

The technology, known as CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) is a cell broadcast mechanism that efficiently sends a 90 character message to all devices that are served by that base station (cell), regardless of their status (home network or roaming). Thus it is a simple matter for a mobile operator to carve out any block of cell towers and broadcast a message. Of course there needs to be an application in the phone that can correctly receive and display this message. Phones that have this embedded will have a CTIA stamp of approval.

Which Phones?

Not many. Perusing AT&T Wireless website shows these CMAS phones:

  • Samsung Galaxy SII (SGH-i777)
  • Samsung Captivate Glide (SGH-i927)
  • Motorola Atrix 2 (mb865)
I am not sure anyone can predict when we will reach a point of penetration where this is a useful service.

Right Idea, Wrong Execution

Which brings up the question of why an important new network service has been implemented in a vacuum.

Surely the idea of a client consuming a service is not new. Instead of terminating CMAS in an app that makes a funny siren sound, any number of cool applications could be developed that integrate the service with other interesting (or not so interesting) ones.

API's for all manners of services have come into existence with smartphones, it would have made the FCC  become way cool if they worked on some APIs together with the carriers and unleashed the hordes of Android and iOS developers. Some new business models might even appear.

As to the Presidential Alert, I still wonder about the apocalyptic logic of it. I am not sure I would know what to do! I hope the FCC brings more clarity to this.


  1. Why not use SMS and preface it that it's a free message?

    1. SMS requires much more network resources as it is a point-to-point technology, vs, CMAS which uses a broadcast mechanism. In crisis situations most networks (especially those not using IP) tend to get congested very rapidly. Interestingly during 9/11 the old BlackBerry network (using a packet technology similar to X.25) stayed up while the cell network collapsed under the load.