Emergency alert service for mobile devices in the works

Government, industry to partner on Commercial Mobile Alert Service

The Homeland Security Department is working with government and industry to develop a Commercial Mobile Alert Service that would extend the Emergency Alert System to mobile cellular devices.

The DHS Science and Technology Directorate and Federal Emergency Management Agency hosted a meeting last week with stakeholders from the alerts and warnings community to begin laying the technical groundwork for CMAS.

“We are in the early planning stages,” said Denis Gusty, program manager for the Science and Technology Directorate. “We’re working with cellular providers on the interface specs” for government and service-provider equipment that will have to interoperate.

CMAS would provide text alerts from authorized federal, state and local agencies to cellular devices as well as to radio and television.

“We’re shooting for October to have the interface specs in place,” Gusty said. “That starts a 28-month period in which the cellular providers have to have the equipment in place to receive CMAS messages.”

During that period, the federal government will establish an alert aggregation center and gateway to receive and authenticate messages and disseminate them to carriers using a Common Alert Protocol. Although the first phase of CMAS involves only text messaging, the system could evolve to include voice, video or other types of data, Gusty said.

CMAS was mandated in the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act, part of the SAFE Port Act of 2006. The Federal Communications Commission was given the lead in establishing requirements for the system and it established the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee, which completed its work in 2007.

Recent manmade and natural disasters underscored the need for a comprehensive system for geographically targeted alerts, FCC said in a notice of proposed rulemaking for the system published in December 2007. “As we have learned from recent disasters such as the Southern California fires, the Virginia Tech shootings and the 2005 hurricanes, such a capability is essential to enable Americans to take appropriate action to protect their families and themselves from loss of life or serious injury.”

That capability has been provided by the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which replaced the old Emergency Broadcast System designed for commercial radio and television broadcasters. As the new name implies, EAS has expanded the media over which it operates as new technology has developed.

“Most recently, we expanded the EAS from its legacy in analog television and radio to include participation by digital television broadcasters, digital cable television providers, digital broadcast radio, Digital Audio Radio Service and Direct Broadcast Satellite systems,” FCC said.

CMAS is intended to take EAS to the next step through mobile cellular devices.

“In times of emergency, Americans rely on their mobile telephony service to receive and retrieve critical, time-sensitive information,” FCC said. “A comprehensive mobile alerting system would have the ability to reach people on the go in a short timeframe, even where they do not have access to broadcast radio or television or other sources of EAS.”

There already are a number of mobile alert services, such as those used by local governments for Amber child-endangerment alerts and other local notifications, but they are not adequate for CMAS, Gusty said.

“That technology is based on SMS,” the Short Message Service standard for GMS mobile phone systems. “There are some problems with that.”

SMS messages can be spoofed and they are not geographically targeted; they are sent to all subscribers to the service, although subscribers typically live or work in the area covered by a service. SMS also does not have a common look and feel that would work with the rest of the Emergency Alert System.

“CMAS is based on cellular broadcast technology,” Gusty said, in which a service provider sends the alert to all users in an affected area. And while SMS is an opt-in technology that users subscribe to, CMAS would be opt-out. “Everyone will have it” by default, “and if you want out of it you have to opt out.”

CMAS would deliver three types of message: Presidential messages in which the president addresses the public through the Emergency Alert System, Amber alerts, and threats to property and life. No president has used EAS to address the public, Gusty said.

The CMAS forum held last week included carriers, service providers and equipment providers; state, local and federal government emergency response managers; professional organizations for government officials; and academicians.

Although, “as with any development project the devil is in the details, overall everyone is pretty much on the same page,” Gusty said.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

Reader Comments

Thu, Aug 6, 2009

Sounds like a good idea if it isn't too costly on the cellular carriers to implement. Also, since it will be an opt-out system, the government should mandate that the service be free to users since not all users can receive free text messages. Even though my phone is capable of text messaging, I don't use it enough (maybe once or twice every couple of months) to pay the unlimited texting monthly fee, especially since I have close to 400 unused voice minutes left on our plan each month.

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