‘Outdated’ cell broadcasting for emergency messages

The system uses the cellular technology known as cell broadcast or SMS-broadcast

Civil Defence Minister, Gerry Brownlee, has announced plans to implement, New Zealand wide, a system that will use the mobile network to broadcast messages to all cellphones in an area in the event of an emergency.

The system uses the cellular technology known as cell broadcast or SMS-broadcast and Brownlee said the Government was on track to have it up and running by the end of the year.

Brownlee said discussions with New Zealand’s major telecommunications companies were progressing well and he expected to have contracts signed in the coming weeks.

“The Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management and the three mobile network operators – 2degrees, Vodafone and Spark – are working together to enable cell broadcast technology in New Zealand for the first time,” he said.

“The Ministry is working alongside the Fire Service, Police, Ministry of Health and Ministry for Primary Industries to develop a system that will work for the whole of government.”

However in 2009, in a paper Public Alerting: Options Assessment Information for the CDEM sector the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management described cell broadcast as an outdated technology.

Also, according to Wikipedia not all cellphones are able to receive cell broadcast messages. Brownlee touched on this issue, but gave no details, saying only: “The alerts will appear similar to text messages. They are received automatically and for free by all cell broadcast enabled mobile phones in the area.” (our italics).

Also, in Android phones cell broadcast needs to manually activated. There is an Android app that improves the display of cell broadcast messages.

Brownlee added that, because no technology is 100 percent failsafe, multiple channels would continue to be used to send alerts when emergencies happen. “These channels include radio, television, websites, various social media, smartphone apps, sirens and other.”

He said a range of alerting methods had been assessed before the Government opted for cell broadcast, “but this system gives the best combination of reach and reliability in New Zealand’s conditions.”

He said it would get information about an emergency to at-risk communities faster and more reliably than ever before. “Plus, cell broadcast technology is not vulnerable to network overloading, so even when the networks get busy after a disaster, alerts can still be sent quickly.

“The system is well established elsewhere in the world in counties such as the US, Japan, Israel, Chile, the Netherlands and Taiwan. “Countries including Canada, Peru, the UAE and the Philippines are in the process of implementing cell broadcast alerting.

There is a global body, The Cell Broadcast Forum, that promotes the technology. However it appears to be dormant. Its last press release was issued in 2009.

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