Cell Broadcast aware

Every mobile phone user is familiar with SMS texting, but not so many are aware of the Cell Broadcast messaging capability of their phone. Now trying to persuade us all to switch on to its potential is the Dutch technology developer one2many. Its managing director Maarten Mes talked to Richard Lambley

Two years ago I was lucky to have the opportunity to buy the IPR of Cell Broadcast technology from, at the time, Logica CMG. Together with a group of Cell Broadcast believers, we believed that we could revive Cell Broadcast in a very successful way by completely focusing on it. And that is what one2many is doing full-time.

We see several very powerful ways of implementing Cell Broadcast. One of them is actually happening as we speak in several countries, and that is a public warning system. We have been trialling it in The Netherlands for more than three years. The first plans date back to five years ago and there is a decision taken by the Dutch government to go ahead with this.

Because it’s more than just a Cell Broadcast implementation for the operator, there is also a broadcast system which is going to be connected to all the mayors and the Government and the firefighter commanders, et cetera, so they can issue messages on a public warning channel.
A public warning system based on GSM Cell Broadcast technology. Alerts can be received in moments on any mobile phone without the need to register with a message provider

Cell Broadcast is something that we can integrate in a network in an time frame of, let’s say, three to four months. The difficulty is that you have to align all the various bodies who should send messages and you want to do that in an authorized and controlled way. At the moment, the interfaces to the GSM network are all proprietary, and in the past 15 years we have built IOT – interoperability testing – with all the vendors, from Huawei to Motorola. That’s why we can relatively quickly implement a Cell Broadcast system into a mobile operator’s network.

Making it make money

What has happened since then is that operators were looking at how to make money with it…. But since then two things have happened. The Internet model has come up and so there is a lot of ‘free’ information (‘free’, because in the end it’s paid for by advertisements). One of the reasons for the revival of Cell Broadcast is that it would be a splendid way of mass communications to a lot of people of free information funded by advertisers, who could actually be very targeted to the audience which is listening to that information.

And the other thing is that, since then, 9/11 happened, the tsunami in Indonesia happened. The fear of governments for their people has become more of an issue. If something happens on one side of the world today, within minutes everybody on the other side of the world will know it, and governments are under pressure to show that they are in control of the situation.

Having an effective way of informing them: today, it’s over sirens and television. But we think it’s a lot more effective – and governments are with us – to do that on the mobile of a person. Everybody has a mobile and most people even sleep with it – they put it next to the bed at night! It’s a very effective way of reaching people.

That’s one way of making the public used to Cell Broadcast on the first place, so it will accelerate operators implementing Cell Broadcast in the network. Once that’s done, it would be very easy to expand the Cell Broadcast system with more commercial types of services.

Generating extra traffic

One thing we are doing very successfully in Africa (but we believe there is no reason why it should not be successful in other parts of the world), is what we call network optimization.

At the moment, operators are balancing the costs of expanding their networks with having cheaper and cheaper prices for calls and for data. So it would be of great value to them if they could fire up traffic on quiet parts of the network while they slow down traffic on very busy parts of the network. Then they can make better use of the capacity of the mobile network.

One way of doing that is giving discounts in those parts of the network which are not heavily used at that moment. In Africa, the operator can give discounts of 80 or 90 per cent at, let’s say, one o’clock at night, for example – and people are using that. The first operator in an African country to implement this immediately attracts a lot of subscribers from their competitors.

Cell Broadcast is the way to permanently display time-based and location-based discounts. For example, I would now have on my display ‘−20%’ if it was a relatively quiet moment in the network, in the cell I am connected to.

Targeted advertising

Also, mobile advertising is one of those hot buzzwords in the mobile industry. Cell Broadcast could be an extremely effective way of location-based advertisements in a most simple form. It’s location-based, it’s opt-in/opt-out, based on channel selection. You could, for example, create Cell Broadcast channels with a certain interest – cars or fashion or sport. You can offer your advertisers an audience which is interested in certain subjects. There are 65 000 channels, but typically operators use 10 to 20 or 30 channels.

To go into a little bit more detail, there are 1000 channels you can turn on yourself; you are yourself in control as a user. The other 64 00 channels can only be turned on over the air. If there are paid services, you might want to avoid those; those services, the operator controls over the air interface.

Typically, for location-based services, one of the immediate worries of a lot of people is that you know where I am. It’s privacy-sensitive. But with Cell Broadcast, by nature, it’s just one-way broadcasting – you don’t need to know where people are. You are just broadcasting, like television or radio, to everyone in that certain area. You get the message because you have turned on Cell Broadcast and you are in a cell which is broadcasting the message.

The advantage, especially for public warning incidents, is that you will reach everybody. In the Netherlands, we also have some trials with SMS. You have to register first. You go to the police station and register your phone. They need to know your phone number, and you have to update it if your phone number changes. You get a message if something happens in the place where you live, because you’re registered there. If you are on holiday in southern France, you also get the message – but you are not interested in it! But somebody in Amsterdam who may happen to be next to the spot of the crime does not get the message because he never registered in the city.

Launching Cell Broadcast

We are very enthusiastic about a revival of Cell Broadcast. We do believe it’s the best system in the market and you will see in the course of next year various governments announcing Cell Broadcast as a way of civil protection for various reasons – weather, terrorists, whatever you can think of. And we do believe in it as a very effective way for other services on the back of that. So it may get profitable for the operator to implement Cell Broadcast first for public warning, and then finance it with other interesting commercial services on the back of that.

The Dutch government is the first to do a full-blown implementation of Cell Broadcast as public warning, but they are the leading a European committee on public warning and the UK is one of the founding members of that. I think there are six or seven countries in that committee who will follow up.

In the United States, we are going in parallel with the European Union because already in 2006 George Bush signed the WARN (Warning Alert and Response Network) Act which obliges operators to at least tell their customers whether they are doing something about public warning, yes or no. If you don’t, it’s like cigarettes: you have to put on the box very clearly that you don’t care about your safety when something happens.

And there are a lot of other countries – Australia and Singapore, and a lot of others – where we are talking to governments and to operators to implement similar things.

Implementing a network

The first large trial of one2many’s Cell Broadcast system was undertaken in 2007 by the National Crisis Centre of the Dutch government. It took place in Zeeland, a province which has been susceptible to flooding and which was thought likely to benefit from an improved public warning service. Previously, the NCC had relied on radio TV broadcasts and on sirens to issue warnings and alerts.

In the trial, 600 mobile handsets with the Cell Broadcast channel enabled were distributed to members of the public and businesses in the region. Message alerts were sent out at unexpected times to simulate an actual event.

The results showed that the messages got through to 72–88 per cent of users during the course of the assessment. Of the members of public recruited for the trial, 80–94 per cent said they regarded Cell Broadcast as a useful addition to the use of sirens for public warning. Tthe remainder had their phones switched off when the messages came through.

This exceptionally high level of user acceptance, and the technical success of the trial, persuaded the NCC to move ahead to a full implementation of Cell Broadcast in the Netherlands. The new public warning system is expected to be fully deployed by the end of this year.

“The trials of one2many’s service exceeded our expectations and we have found a public warning system that will be of immense benefit to the public”, commented Willy Steenbakkers, senior crisis co-ordinator at the NCC. “We are currently working with the three major operators in the Netherlands to integrate the platform into their networks and they are as positive about the project as we are. Everyone involved in the deployment of Cell Broadcast in Holland can see the social benefits of the programme and is fully committed to making it a success.”

Twittering and scoring

One application of Cell Broadcast with perhaps the potential to launch a new craze is a novel form of micro-blogging. “People can send a premium SMS and that’s actually forwarded to Cell Broadcast”, explains Maarten Mes. “It can be forwarded to a certain region or to the whole country, through a certain channel. So depending on the short code that you send your message to, it’s forwarded to a different channel of Cell Broadcast.

“That has been unbelievably successful in Poland, where it’s used for dating. They have four channels: he is looking for him, he is looking for her, she’s looking for him, and she’s looking for her. So, depending on what you’re looking for, you can send to different channels.

“You can say a simple message like ‘Who wants to go to the movies tonight in Warsaw?’ Then people can reply only to the person who sent the message, by SMS. Or they can reply to the whole community. It takes just a few seconds and it’s sent out only to those people who turn on the channel and so have opted in for receiving these messages.

“One way of using this is Twitter, and that’s why we dubbed it micro-blogging. You can imagine that operators are struggling how to use Twitter. Twitter is a big success but if you just put it on mobile by SMS, it’s going to be very costly for you as an operator because it’s a free message – and you need quite some bandwidth if, say, Obama puts out a tweet.

“For very popular tweets, you can create a channel. One of the things we’re doing in the States at the moment is to have a channel for Obama. So the tweets of Obama are sent to a certain channel of Cell Broadcast, and everybody who turns on this channel gets it as confidential information.

“Same thing could be, for example, for a goal alert or reactions on the goal alert. Say you have your own community of – whatever – Manchester United, and you send a message. People start mailing to each other and commenting to each other on what’s happening on the field. In the same way, you can also limit it, for example to only Manchester, and you can also make it location-based. Which, for dating, is one of the reasons why it’s so successful – because you want to date with people more or less in your area.”

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