Peace of mind for a tourist paradise

Peace of mind for a tourist paradise

The Maldives comprises around 300,000 people living in 200 islands among a total of around 1,200 small islands located in the Indian Ocean south of India.  The densely populated capital Malé is home to one-third of the population.  The atoll nation is the wealthiest in the region with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of USD 2,992 and more mobile connections than people (Aug 2008).[1]

Ninety two of the uninhabited islands have been converted to resorts that attract high-end tourists, amounting to more than one-fifth of the country’s population during the winter peak.  Tourism is the most important industry, contributing around 27 per cent of the GDP.  According to the Asian Development Bank, the Maldives was among the worst affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  Loss of life was small, but around one-third of the population was affected and property damage was estimated to have been around 60 per cent of the GDP.[2]  Ensuring public safety and giving visitors a sense of security are thus high priorities for the Government.

The highly dispersed population (it takes 48 hours to go from one end of the Maldives to the other by boat) is one of the reasons why radio and television would be less than ideal for public warning.   Tourists are unlikely to listen to national channels.  In any case, radio and TV sets have to be switched on for warnings to be communicated.   Complete coverage of inhabited and resort islands, the near ubiquity of handsets among both citizens and guests and their ability to sound alerts pointed to mobiles as an attractive option.

Short message service (SMS) and cell broadcasts (CB) are two options for public warning via mobile.   The former is better known but is unsuited for public warning.

Short Message Service (SMS)

Cell Broadcast (CB)

Messages sent point-to-point (messages directed to handsets) Messages sent point-to-area (messages directed to radio cells)
Requires input of recipient phone numbers Does not require input or knowledge of numbers
Only pre-registered numbers notified All numbers within a cell notified
Messages cannot be differentiated by location of recipients Messages can be differentiated by cells or sets of cells
Subject to congestion and thereby, delay Being broadcasts, not subject to congestion
140-160 characters in length.  Can concatenate up to five messages 93 characters.  Can concatenate up to 15 ‘pages’ to produce a single message of up to 1200 bytes of data
No indication that message is generated by a legitimate authority Not possible for outsider to generate a cell broadcast so greater authenticity

A recent US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Order on public warning via mobiles found SMS to be unsuitable and indicated that operators should instead use the point-to-multipoint capabilities of networks.   CB is the only viable method at the present time.  Since handsets incapable of delivering public warnings will have to carry notifications, this has turned the tide among manufacturers and operators in favour of CB.

The Telecommunications Authority of the Maldives (TAM) requested LIRNEasia, a regional telecom policy and regulation think tank with expertise in disaster early warning, to identify the preconditions necessary for the use of CB for early warning and to evaluate its potential for commercial applications.   The biggest barrier was found to be lack of knowledge.  In the tiny but intensely rivalrous Maldives industry, the operators, each with a customer base less than that of a small city elsewhere, focus almost exclusively on marketing.  However, upon being educated on the existence of over 66,000 logical CB channels, they have quickly realized CB’s potential not only for public warning but for myriad commercial and other applications.

Obviously, the efficacy of a public warning technology rests on the speed and accuracy of warnings and orders issued by Government on one side and the readiness to take appropriate action by the warned populace.  Tourist resorts are organized communities with structures for decision making and executing.   With periodic training and refreshing, they can be prepared to respond appropriately.  Ensuring general community preparedness poses a more difficult challenge.

CB is an intrinsic feature of GSM, UMTS and IS 95 CDMA networks, and is thus available in the two Maldivian networks.  But it must be activated.   Most handsets are capable of receiving CB messages but the feature must be turned on.  However, in the early stages, getting customers to turn on the feature could be an effective way of educating them of mobile-based public warning.

Following stakeholder meetings that included sharing of information on the ongoing CB channel-standardization work of Study Group 2 of the Telecommunication Bureau of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-T) and experience in attempting to use CB for public warning in Sri Lanka, the recommendations to TAM are being finalized.   They include the constitution of a “trust protocol board” to develop the terms of access to the CB broker server to ensure security and the conduct of live demonstrations on a test channel that will not be seen by the public.  The latter is likely to bring up technical issues that require resolution before full-scale implementation.

Once technical implementation is complete, a public awareness campaign will be required to get citizens to switch on the CB function in their handsets.   It will take time and success in ITU-T standardization efforts for all tourists to automatically receive warning messages on their roaming mobiles.  A discreet campaign telling tourists how to turn on the Maldivian warning channel can not only enhance their security but also communicate the image of a caring Maldives.  For sustained adoption, it will be necessary for the regulator to continue discussions with the operators to develop a framework for commercial CB applications and to encourage such uses.


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