FCC’s Emergency Alert Ruling May Spur Use of Cell Broadcast Technology


A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling earlier this month may spur greater adoption of cell broadcast technology, according to a company that claims to have developed the nation’s first emergency alert system using the technique.

CellCast Technologies, a Texas-based manufacturer of cell broadcast software, and Einstein Wireless, a wireless carrier based in Little Chute, Wis., unveiled a cell broadcast service last fall. The system, which is currently in the pilot phase, allows emergency managers to broadcast text alerts to all cell phone users in a specified geographic area.

On April 9, the FCC approved an order to develop a national emergency alert system to deliver messages to cell phones. The order reflects recommendations made by the FCC’s Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee. Messages recommended for delivery through the system include: presidential, imminent threat and child abduction/Amber Alerts.

Once fully implemented, the Commercial Mobile Alert System will help ensure that people who subscribe to participating wireless services receive emergency alerts when there is a disaster or emergency that may impact their lives or well-being, according to the FCC.

“There will be a lot of meetings and evaluations going on in Washington right now [and] after the results of the FCC ruling to determine who at a federal level will be the clearing-house, in other words, the origination house, for national warnings,” said Paul Klein, chief operating officer of CellCast Technologies.

More than 100 Einstein Wireless subscribers in Wisconsin have signed up for the free cell broadcast pilot service. All Einstein subscribers — about 40,000, Klein estimates — can receive the emergency text alerts. But subscribers must opt into the program. Klein said CellCast will educate more Einstein customers on their ability to join the emergency alert system.

The system works like this: When a disaster occurs, an emergency manager sends an alert using CellCast Alerts software and designates which areas should receive notification. The system authenticates the alert and sends it to cell towers in the designated areas. The towers then send the alert to Einstein phones as text message.

Cell broadcast text message delivery differs from the more common short message service (SMS) method of text messaging. With SMS, a message is delivered point-to-point or from phone-to-phone, but cell broadcast delivers a message simultaneously from one point to many phones, similar to a radio broadcast. Cell broadcast lets emergency managers designate specific areas to send alerts to.

The service is currently available only to Einstein customers.

Klein said the project began in early 2006 after Einstein agreed to participate. It went live in fall 2007. Since then, the cell broadcast has been demonstrated to many groups, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Klein hopes the project’s success will spur other cellular providers to follow Einstein’s example and either join CellCast or start their own pilot programs, creating a national network that would leave fewer citizens out.

The FCC’s decision could be a watershed event to inspire other cell phone providers to join CellCast’s system, he added. If they do, emergency alerts will be delivered to subscribers other than Einstein. CellCast is now expanding its cell broadcast system — an ongoing process that will involve outreach to more government agencies and cell phone providers.

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