Florida officials completed the state’s first end-to-end cell broadcast technology pilot of the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) standard in a public/private partnership with Blackboard Inc., Alcatel-Lucent and CellCast Technologies.
The companies tested the CMAS standard by delivering emergency alerts to handsets on the MetroPCS wireless network throughout Florida’s Pasco and Polk counties, said Jim Johnston, operations coordinator for Pasco County. Johnston said the one-to-many technology can support the dissemination of imminent threat and presidential alerts, as mandated under the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006.
“It is designed to let public officials send urgent messages to wireless users within range of a particular cellular antenna or wireless transmission system,” Johnston said.
CMAS will let federal agencies transmit alerts from the president, the National Weather Service and local emergency operations centers over the commercial network that will distribute the alerts to their customers via cell broadcast text messages. Brendan Cotter, a senior vice president for Blackboard, said cell broadcasting lets the company indentify a specific area and send a mass emergency notification through single or multiple towers and have them received via text message to anyone in that geo-targeted area.
“The beauty of that is that it allows us to target that individual without having to specifically know who he or she is,” he said. “So you can imagine as this evolves the impact this has to cities and states from being able to communicate to any transient visitor or tourist that happens to be in a specific area.”
As part of the pilot test, Cotter said the emergency message originated in its Blackboard Connect software notification system, passed through an identification process and then was transmitted though Alcatel Lucent’s broadcast message center to towers in the specific area tested. He said it then was delivered to handsets.
“It shows that this is the next emerging technology,” Cotter said of the pilot test. “It is more exciting to leaders in our country because it gives them a way to warn a mobile population.”
Johnston said the counties’ pilot was held in anticipation of meeting the FCC’s April 2012 deadline for the deployment of CMAS by the wireless industry and commercial providers who chose to participate voluntarily. While he expects most carriers will transmit emergency notifications, he emphasized they are not under a mandate to do so.
“The carriers were all asked to participate,” Johnston said. “Most carriers have agreed to participate. There’s an obvious reason to do it from a humanitarian standpoint as well as commercial applications developed along the way.”
Johnston said the pilot proved the CMAS standard and defined a timeline of between 2 and 10 seconds from sending an alert to receipt over the network to a mobile device. He said they found that the system will accept a message and display a message.
“We found this is the fastest, rapid way to get information out, uses the least of carrier infrastructure as compared to sending 10,000 messages on a wire line system that gets overloaded,” he said.
While the pilot was successful, the bigger question is how the public will be taught about the system and how they will perceive alerts, including whether or not they will take action. Johnston said it is important messages are defined and communicate valid information to the population affected.
“If I get a notice for a tornado warning that affects the other side of my county, do I really care other than as knowledge? If I get a notice for a warning that within 5 or 10 minutes that a tornado touchdown is possible, do the following … ,” Johnston said. “The latter alert tells me I need to do something now. That’s an imminent alert.”
Johnston said the public will ultimately pay for the text message, even through under the presidential directive it states the receiver cannot be charged. Some costs can be offset since the cell broadcast trunking has commercial applications. But government will have to pay the difference, which means tax dollars.
“We have to determine how to minimize that cost by offsetting it with commercial applications the carrier can benefit from as saleable products,” he said.