One System, Two Uses: Intrado Cell Broadcast Service

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some point in 2013, cell phones began to outnumber people in the United States. Sometime late this year, the number of mobile devices around the world is projected to surpass global population. Given this trend, the CTIA, FCC and FEMA initiated a joint effort to develop Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), a wireless version of emergency notification services. The valuable service was developed to increase public safety by capitalizing on this ubiquitous mode of modern communication. While wireless service providers carry no legal responsibility for participating in the program, they may face significant business implications for opting out. As more and more WEA messages are broadcasted around the country, customer retention could become a challenge for carriers that choose not to offer the service. For tier 1 carriers, WEA participation is an easy decision. Smaller carriers, however, may be challenged by the cost of required technology upgrades. Intrado Cell Broadcast Service (ICBS) allows tier 2 and tier 3 carriers to deliver lifesaving WEA messaging without expensive technology upgrades and provides a way to monetize their existing networks through the use of commercial cell broadcast messages.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

As with any new technology service, WEA comes with significant technology requirements. The service is dependent upon specific gateways that allow the emergency alerts to be disseminated by authorities to the wireless service providers and, ultimately, end-users. Within the WEA architecture, carriers are responsible for developing, testing and deploying the Commercial Mobile Service Provider (CMSP) Alert Gateway and Cell Broadcast Center (CBC) based upon standards adopted and provided by the WEA commission. As soon as a carrier communicates to the FCC their intent to participate in WEA, they must also attest to supporting and performing various functions at their gateway relative to connectivity, authentication and validation, security, geographic targeting and message management. For most tier 2 and 3 carriers, these requirements make participation in this service technologically and economically challenging. This is unfortunate because WEA messages have played a significant role in many recent emergency events, including the Colorado floods, a Connecticut tornado and a child abduction in Minneapolis. In each of these instances, cell phone users received specific unsolicited emergency information that provided warnings, instructions and descriptions that directly saved the lives of countless people. Clearly, this is an important service that every wireless carrier should consider offering to their customers.

Intrado Cell Broadcast Service (ICBS) was developed to make it easy and affordable for carriers of any size to broadcast important WEA messages. ICBS is a fully managed and hosted solution that enables wireless carriers to receive WEA emergency alerts aggregated and distributed by the Federal Alert Gateways while meeting all of the requirements of the FCC Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act. Emergency alerts are delivered over the Intrado network to a carrier’s cell sites located within a targeted geographic alert area. The carrier’s towers then broadcast the alerts to all WEA-enabled mobile handset that are being served by that tower at the time of the alert. With ICBS, carriers do not have to make significant network investments and are not responsible for any architecture testing or security. In this way, small regional carriers can provide their customers with the same emergency services offered by tier 1 carriers across the country.

Commercial Cell Broadcast Messages

In addition to the ability to deliver lifesaving WEA messages, ICBS allows carriers to monetize their network and drive revenue through the delivery of commercial cell broadcast messages. Using the same system designated for WEA messages, ICBS applies precision location technology to deliver a wide range of non-emergency messages to a geo-targeted audience. This is an exciting opportunity because it has broad applications that will allow carriers to recoup some of the cost of the WEA service.

ICBS for commercial purposes is an easy-to-use, fully hosted solution. The carrier simply provides Intrado with the content details and the geographic dimension—which cell towers to utilize. Intrado then audits the content for accuracy and sends out the messages over the carrier’s network based on the specifications governing the distribution of the content—when, where and who receives it.

The most obvious application for commercial ICBS is location-based mobile marketing—one of the hottest new trends in retail sales. In this scenario, wireless subscribers opt into the service as a way of receiving coupons, product information, sale notifications, etc. Carriers then charge content providers (such as a retailer or a restaurant) a set fee per message sent out to customers based on their geo-targeted location.

Beyond retail applications, this can be a valuable asset to small communities that want an easy way to disseminate local notifications or news items. School districts can use the service to announce school closings. The carrier itself can even utilize the solution to announce product updates or other information directed to its customers.

Connecting with Customers

As the world becomes more and more wirelessly connected, the role of mobile devices is expanding rapidly. We no longer think of a cell phone as a simple way to make a call. Today, it is a dynamic tool to send, receive and interact with relevant information. The Intrado Cell Broadcast Service allows wireless carriers of all sizes to take advantage of this shift in the marketplace. This important service provides carriers with an easy and affordable way to deliver both emergency and commercial messages to their customers without the need for costly network investments.



FEMA Promotes Its Wireless Emergency Alert System

THE Federal Emergency Management Agency is releasing new public service advertising this week, created in conjunction with the Advertising Council, to educate Americans about its wireless emergency alert system.

Public service announcements explain the alerts, which are displayed on most wireless devices.

The system, which enables local, state and federal authorized government authorities to send emergency messages through wireless carriers’ networks, started two years ago, but has not been publicized through advertising.

The release of the campaign coincides with Hurricane Preparedness Week, which began on Sunday and runs through Saturday. The week, an annual effort coordinated by several government agencies, including FEMA, is intended to inform the public about hurricane hazards and steps to take to prepare for them. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive of the Ad Council, said it was “particularly timely and appropriate to launch the new advertising at the beginning of the hurricane season, and in light of the terrible tornadoes in the Midwest and wildfires in California.”

Wireless emergency alerts — issued for extreme weather like hurricanes, tornadoes or flash floods; Amber Alerts; or alerts from the president about catastrophic disasters — come as text messages that feature a special tone and vibration. No longer than 90 characters, the message discusses the type and time of the alert, action individuals should take, and the issuing agencies.

Over 100 wireless carriers offer the free alert service; no subscription is necessary. Alerts are broadcast from cell towers and warn everyone in range who has a device that is capable of receiving a wireless emergency alert. Many new cellphones and smartphones can transmit these messages.

The new advertising is in English and Spanish and was created by the Oakland, Calif., office of Free Range Studios, a graphic design and digital storytelling agency. It includes a 60-second television spot that features a montage of lifesaving objects like a life preserver, defibrillator and seat belt, and then shows a wireless device delivering a message and a family taking shelter after receiving a tornado alert. The voice-over says, “With a unique sound and vibration, you’ll be in the know, wherever you are,” and the Web site for the campaign,, is flashed.

A 60-second radio ad contains sounds “in your day-to-day life,” like an alarm clock, a baby laughing, and a cheering crowd. After a voice-over states “there are some sounds that can alert you to danger, and can help save lives,” the sound of the wireless emergency alert is played. Then a description of how the alert works is given, and listeners are directed to the campaign’s Web site. Digital ads run similar messages and images from the TV spot.

“Many people do not realize that they carry a potentially life-saving tool with them in their pockets or purses every day,” said W. Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA. He added that as hurricane season approaches, alerts that these devices can deliver could help people “take appropriate preparedness steps when facing potential man-made and natural disasters.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the Ad Council introduced the “Ready” campaign — whose latest messages are the emergency alert-related advertising — 10 years ago, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Ad Council began working with FEMA on the campaign in 2008, when administration of the emergency preparedness program was moved to FEMA, which is part of Homeland Security.

“Ready” advertising initially urged the public to prepare for emergencies with special kits and also promoted a preparedness Web site. President Obama mentioned the site,, in a speech in Asbury Park, N.J., on Tuesday at the reopening of New Jersey shore boardwalks in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He urged people to educate themselves and prepare for a hurricane or other disaster by visiting the site. “Make a plan. It’s never too early,” he said.

The new ads focusing on the alert system are a “much simpler call to action” than previous advertising, Ms. Conlon of the Ad Council said, adding that their message is, “if you have a cellphone, you’ll always get an alert, you should pay attention.”

She said the “Ready” campaign so far had been run in $1 billion worth of donated time and space, which she said is “probably three times” the worth of time and space donated, on average, for all Ad Council campaigns.


Federal government puts emergency ‘PLAN’ into action

When residents near the Texas coast were ordered to evacuate their homes while Hurricane Rita barreled through in 2005, they had nowhere to go. When students went to class April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech University, they didn’t know they were heading into danger.

No matter what type of cellphone, PLAN will alert everyone within a cellular tower service area of incoming dangers.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) along with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has developed a new program, PLAN — Personal Localized Alerting Network — that could have helped in both situations. Officials at FEMA and the FCC say it will take several months to implement, but it is scheduled to debut in late 2011 in New York and Washington, D.C. and be available nationwide in spring 2012.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama in 2005, Congress passed the WARN Act (Warning, Alert and Response Network) that required a more extensive warning system in times of weather or terrorist dangers. The law is designed to funnel alerts to the public from the president, the National Weather Service and local emergency managers. PLAN is the implementation of the WARN Act’s mandate.

PLAN uses geographically targeted text alerts to cellphone users about tornado or terrorist threats in their areas. The messages can be pared down to a single cellular tower service area, alerting all cellular receivers whose wireless companies participate.

The Cell Broadcast technology allows a text or binary message to be defined and distributed to all mobile terminals, such as cellphones, connected to a set of cells. Reverse 911, another emergency notification technology, sends messages point-to-point, relying on a database of phone numbers. Since Cell Broadcast messages are sent point-to-area, one can reach a huge number of terminals at once. In other words, Cell Broadcast messages are directed to radio cells, rather than to a specific terminal.

Another difference between PLAN and Reverse 911: Recipients won’t need to open PLAN alerts like text messages. Instead, the messages simply pop up on the phones. There is no need to register, and emergency alerts will be sent to all users with text-capable devices if their wireless carrier participates.

Meanwhile in Florida, an Emergency Cellular Pilot Test Program was successfully completed in June. Polk, Pasco, Brevard and Orange counties participated in the pilot.

“An emergency alert program needs to be intrusive,” said Pete McNally, Polk County’s Emergency Management director. “It needs to get to people wherever they are, and the way to do that is by cellphone.”
(NACo will conduct a webinar on the PLAN deployment with the FCC later this month or the first week in August.)