Cell broadcasting – a harmonised approach

Last month we raised the issue of what can be achieved by cell broadcasting, Mark Wood, Hon Sec CEASa International, provides a further up date and explains just how important the facility is…

In last month’s article of the BAPCO Magazine, we talked about ‘Cell Broadcasting’ (CB), what can be achieved in the way of a powerful tool for government to citizen mass alerting, and how the Citizens Emergency Alert Services Association (CEASa), a not for profit civil society group, works to promote its adoption. Cell broadcasting exists now in most phones and networks, works even in full overload while not contributing to overload, is able to target specific areas with specific messages, and can be secured from bogus alerts and spam. However there are several things that need to be done in order to turn a little known bearer service in the mobile phone networks, and in the mobile phones, into a practical tool for the Emergency Management Toolbox.

The GSM committee created the Cell Broadcast feature with a facility called Message Source Identifiers (MI). This is a 16 bit binary code at the start of every cell broadcast message. It is somewhat analogous to the ‘port number’ in an internet address, it does not set the route or define bandwidth, but does inform the receiving device what kind of information it is, so that it can work out if it should receive it, (or ignore it),

and if so what should be done. This gives about 65000 ‘channels’ of information. The phone owner has to enable each MI that he wants to receive in the ‘Area Information’ menu of his phone.

The problem is that no one has ever defined what information goes on what MI number. So neither phone owners nor phone dealers can pre-program mobiles to pick up emergency messages until someone tells them what MI to set. Furthermore this must be the same all over the world; otherwise a travelling tourist may miss emergency messages if the country he is in is transmitting on a different channel. On the contrary he may be inundated with spam which is co-incidentally being transmitted on what is the emergency channel in his country.

Calls for harmonisation have already come from Viviane Reading, EU commissioner for information society. The EU has also decided to extend its trial of CB in Holland, to include Spain. The European Union Public Safety Communications forum had its first meeting in November 2006, and in the USA, a presidential order has mandated that Public Mobile networks also carry emergency warnings, and a FCC committee has been convened to study options. This means that there is very little time to get a harmonised approach in place before many more system start to come on line. The work is very urgent indeed.

Accordingly the UN ITU will meet in Geneva in February with a proposal before Study Group 2 (SG2) to begin the process of officially designating a global standard, or at least a ‘Civic sub band’.While many mobile operators have gladly co–operated, some of the big US mobile networks have been reluctant to take action to make CB accessible, saying that it is “not a priority for them”. In fact some have denied to the government that the facility exists at all, have re-flashed their mobiles to hide the feature, and taken bureaucratic and diplomatic measures to drag out any progress on cell broadcast Harmonisation in the hope of stalling eventual deployment.

CEASa, as an organisation of unpaid volunteers, does not have the resources to do it alone, but is now working with participating networks, governments and citizens to urge networks to re assess their position. Now that it is clear that Cell Broadcast will definitely come, then it is in everyone’s interest that a ‘Harmonisation framework’ must be in place before chaos reigns. We will all be fine as long as we don’t sleep walk into the jungle.

So if you want this valuable tool, you will have to help us to fight for it by urging your administration to press for action on Harmonisation at the ITU, and for your national mobile network operator to grant access to the feature. What we stand to gain is so valuable that it will be worth the hard work it will be.

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