Program will test Amber alerts on cellular network

Nextel Communications Inc. of Reston, Va., is testing a system to deliver geographically targeted Amber alerts to cellular users.

The Amber alert system is a partnership between law enforcement agencies and the media to distribute timely information to the public in child abduction cases.

The alerts have been disseminated through traditional media, such as radio and television, but have been expanded to also include newer outlets such as programmable roadway signs.

Nextel is working with Communications Laboratories Inc. of Melbourne, Fla., on a pilot program that would send the alerts to Nextel public safety customers in Pennsylvania.

The core of the system is a Nextel server that provides an interface with Commlabs' EMNet warning system.

EMNet is a satellite-based component of the federal Emergency Alert System.

EAS is the digital successor to the Emergency Broadcast System. Originally developed during the Cold War as a way for the president to gain emergency access to radio and television broadcasters, it was extended to local law enforcement and emergency agencies in 1963. The switch to digital technology in 1994 now makes cable and satellite TV systems part of the EAS.

In 2002, EAS added new event codes and location codes specifically for child abduction emergencies under the Amber program. EAS servers at media outlets use these codes to interpret and send alerts in the proper areas.

Amber alerts are initiated by state coordinators.

The Nextel server links with EMNet and interprets the EAS location codes for the Amber alert and translates them to the proper area code for cellular subscribers. The alert is sent as a text message. Coordinators also can access the Nextel system directly through a secure Website.

Nextel plans to begin expanding the service to subscribers nationwide in the next year. It will remain a free option.

Ed Sauer, principal engineer at Nextel, said the system also could be used with other EAS alerts, such as severe-weather warnings and homeland security information.

'I would foresee the possibility for targeting selected alerts for subscribers,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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