Mobile providers resisting SOS alerts


South Korea, the Netherlands and possibly even tiny Appleton, Wisconsin, are starting to use a little-known but widely available technology called cellular broadcasting to send emergency text messages to mobile phone users threatened by weather, industrial accidents or terrorism.

But the global advance of the mobile phone emergency alerts, which are also being considered by India, Malaysia and Finland, is being resisted by some cellphone operators, who fear government regulation, increased costs and legal liability from false alarms, experts said. Some carriers, they said, are concerned that the technology could undermine the conventional short messaging system, or SMS, which generates the bulk of operators’ revenue from wireless data.

“Basically, operators have fought cell broadcasting because they haven’t figured out a way to make money from it yet,” said Gordon Gow, a lecturer in telecommunications at the London School of Economics.

“But it’s really the logical way to extend early warning systems. When you’re on a beach, you won’t have a TV or radio, but you probably will have a mobile phone.”

Cell broadcasting is a standard, but largely unused, part of every GSM and CDMA digital phone network that can transmit uniform text warnings either to all users or to defined regions. It is different from SMS in that the broadcast relays the message indiscriminately to every phone in a cell tower’s receiving area, typically a 3.2-kilometer, or 2-mile, radius, without having to know individual phone numbers. A cell broadcast usually causes phones to ring before a 162-character message scrolls across phone displays. Callers must have their phones switched on and have activated the function to receive the messages.

“This is just the beginning,” said Mark Wood, a spokesman for the Cellular Emergency Alert Systems Association, a London-based group of engineers and software makers advocating cell broadcasting. “The technology exists in most phones today and is essentially free. It could have helped save lives, for example, in last year’s tsunami.”

In October, the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to require cell operators to transmit government text warnings via cell broadcasts. The government paid about E2.5 million, or $3 million, to three operators – Vodafone, KPN and Telfort – to equip their networks for cellular broadcasts.

So far, the Dutch system has sent only test messages. But starting Feb. 1, the national weather service will warn cellphone users of imminent flooding or rising ocean tides in threatened areas, said Wim van Setten, executive director of the Dutch Mobile Messaging Platform Association, the public-private organization that is running the program.

“It took us six years to get cellular broadcasting in the Netherlands,” Van Setten said. “At first, the operators couldn’t see any economic benefit for themselves, so talks dragged on. But we kept up the pressure, kept meeting with them, and eventually they agreed to cooperate.”

But so far, most countries have resisted cellular broadcasts, even after disasters.

“The mobile phone is best for peer-to-peer communication,” said Gabriel Solomon, a director in London at the GSM Association, which represents 680 operators in 210 countries and territories. “It’s not meant for informing the broader public. TV, radio and warning sirens are still the best way.”

After two earthquakes killed more than 17,000 people in Turkey in 1999, the country’s leading cellphone operator, Turkcell, created an emergency team with the network maker Ericsson to replace cell towers and restore service in devastated regions. But lawmakers did not pursue cellular broadcasts.

“Cell broadcasts don’t work when towers are destroyed or rendered inoperable,” said Muzaffer Akpinar, the chief executive of Turkcell, which is based in Istanbul.

However, Akpinar said Turkcell would work to equip its network for cell broadcasts, should legislators determine it was needed.

“Cell broadcasting right now is one of the biggest questions facing the industry,” Akpinar said.

In May, South Korea became the first country in the world to switch on a nationwide cellular-based emergency system, paying wireless operators to equip their networks for broadcasts.

Since then, the system has been used to warn citizens of heavy snow and other adverse weather or emergencies, said Eunice Paek, an international affairs spokeswoman at the Korean Broadcasting Commission.

“The one issue for us is that cell broadcasts don’t reach people when they turn off their phones,” she said. The messages are not saved on phones so they will not pop up when turned on later if the alerts have ended.

Resistance from large cellphone operators is the main reason cellular broadcasting has failed to make gains in the United States, even after the government’s much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, said Douglas Weiser, the head of the U.S. branch of the Cellular Emergency Alert Systems Association, who is based in Tampa, Florida.

Because U.S. carriers paid a combined $80 billion to buy digital mobile licenses from the government in the 1990s, Weiser said, the industry has been largely able to fend off government attempts at regulation. One rural cell carrier, Einstein PCS in Appleton, tested a cell broadcasting system in September and is considering installing one, he said.

Weiser is director of a Tampa company, CellCast Communications, which sells software letting mobile network operators offer location-based services to subscribers who, for example, want to find the nearest restaurant.

CellCast is trying to reach agreements with rural cellphone carriers in parts of the U.S. South and Midwest to transmit text messages from the U.S. Emergency Alert System about tornadoes, hurricanes and other weather threats. Weiser said CellCast aimed to get an agreement by March covering parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Wisconsin, Texas, Kansas, Missouri and Maine.

Once the public routinely looks for emergency broadcasts on their cellphones, Weiser said, some cell users may also opt to receive commercial services paid for by advertisers.

One possible service could advise shoppers entering a large store like a Wal-Mart, for example, which items are on sale and where they can be found in the store, Weiser said.

In South Korea and the Netherlands, cell broadcasts are limited by law to government emergencies.

Most of the digital groundwork for cell broadcasting is already in place or can easily be bought, advocates said. In the United States, Weiser said, a digital decoder that costs about $15,000 could take emergency messages from the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Alert System and transmit them without delay to cellphones in a network’s coverage area.

Weiser said some TV and radio broadcasters in the rural states where his company is active are offering to pay for the decoders to broadcast emergency alerts. In exchange, text messages broadcast during emergencies could direct cellphone users to appropriate local stations for further information in cases of severe weather.

Network operators are reluctant to explore the commercial potential of cell broadcasting, Weiser said, because many mistakenly think it will undermine SMS revenue. Because there is no law mandating cellular broadcasting in the United States, Weiser said, the technology must be paid for by advertising.

Cell broadcasts are scattershot, like traditional broadcast television, so calling charges could not pay for any information services offered over the 64,000 different digital broadcast frequencies available on most handsets.

“The problem with cell broadcasting in the U.S. has never been the technology,” Weiser said, “it’s been a question of political will.”

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