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The Truth About Wireless Alerts?

Posted by: Cliff Edwards on April 11, 2008

It’s been interesting to hear the nation’s major wireless carriers applaud the Federal Communications Commission’s adoption Apr. 10 of a framework for a nationwide mobile alert system.
The Commercial Mobile Alert system, when implemented, would blast out text messages in the event of a looming natural disaster, terrorist strike or child abduction. It’s a noble effort that has been underway since 2006, when Congress allocated $106 million to get it started.
Verizon Wireless, Sprint and AT&T quickly announced they would join the framework, with one executive from Verizon confidently predicting the service “will soon be available to wireless users.”
Don’t be fooled, though. The word “soon” is sufficiently vague to mask a variety of technical problems that will hinder getting the service up and running in the near term.
If a real emergency were to arise, some experts are fairly certain the entire cellular network would crash. William Krenik, who manages Texas Instruments’ advanced wireless research team, recently told me a nationwide text blast likely would overload the system. He sits on a committee of engineers and other technical experts from the wireless industry that has been examining how to deal with a nationwide wireless emergency alert system. High-performance data services over the next few years are expected to demand up to 250 times the available nationwide spectrum, he says.
His view fits into what we know already about current wireless networks. Carriers already must manage their networks to handle “special” events such as Christmas, Mother’s Day and even American Idol text voting for favorite contestants. If they don’t, you’re likely to hear the ominous “All circuits are busy” comment, or get a fast-busy signal.
With little or no warning of an emergency, sending a signal to nearly 260 million U.S. wireless subscribers could create another disaster in which communications are so disrupted that people won’t know what to do after the initial alert. I put in a call to the CTIA wireless trade association for their take on this, but haven’t heard back.
Krenik says alternatives being considered include using FM radios installed on some phones, employing new technology that ties in with increasing installation of global-position satellite (GPS) chips on phones—or waiting for fourth-generation cellular networks to become more ubiquitous. Those networks, based on the Intel-backed WiMAX and Qualcomm’s LTE, essentially use Web technology to deliver big packets of data at relatively low costs. Those networks aren’t expected to offer nationwide coverage until at least 2010.

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Reader Comments

Robert Oberhofer

April 11, 2008 05:43 PM

There is a fundamental difference in Holiday/Mother's Day traffic and emergency alerts.
The former is many to many, the latter is one to many. There are already special provisions in the communication protocols to handle one to many in a more efficient manner. Thus it is about testing that it will work - and at most just a software upgrade away for the carriers.
Now the ensuing text and phone traffic that occurs after such an alert is sent out nationwide is a different matter....

Don Wolford

April 11, 2008 09:47 PM

I second Mr. Oberhofer's comment, and expand on it: not only is the system designed to be one-to-many, but it also uses the most efficient delivery mechanism the cellular networks have, which is text messaging. Even while the networks were being crushed by voice calls on 9/11, text messages were getting through, albeit sometimes slowly, and those were the one-to-one variety. My only disappointment is that the granularity is county by county. It should be tower by tower. For example, I live at the extreme eastern edge of a county, and what happens two miles over the county line is of more interest than what's happening 40 miles away on the west end of "my" county.


April 11, 2008 10:22 PM

but the likelihood of sending one to 260 million is insane, a working scenario would be an alert message would be sent to users in the immediate disaster zone, there wouldn't be a point sending an alert to the entire west coast if the problem is confined to a small portion of the population in the east. There should be a method in place to stagger the delivery of an alert and monitor its deliver across the wireless network.


April 12, 2008 12:23 PM

The comments are way better than the article!!!!!


April 28, 2008 05:31 AM

Hmmm... Sounds like someone is trying to sell an expensive new system when existing networks are good enough.

I lived in Italy in the early 2000s and there the government used cell networks to send out disaster text messages (we were all warned when there was a huge power outage), calls to vote in elections and even smog-related traffic restrictions. This is a proven technology that has been working for years in Europe.

No, you don't need to sell new handsets and no you don't need to build new networks.

And I agree with Mario! Maybe BW could post a title and let readers add the meat.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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