|From RCR Wireless News|
Story posted: December 9, 2006 - 6:00 am EDT
WASHINGTON—The wireless industry is quietly reassessing long-held resistance to a cell-broadcast technology that’s getting a serious look by the Department of Homeland Security and increasingly embraced in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Indeed, according to sources, representatives of several national mobile-phone carriers late last month joined officials from the DHS, New York City, Houston, the Louisiana governor’s office and state and local governments in Houston—headquarters of CellCast Technologies Corp.—at a secure, underground facility operated by CellCast partner Westlin Corp.
Cellcast is the technology company behind a campaign to convince federal, state and emergency managers that cell-broadcast emergency alert technology is ready for prime time in the United States and that further delay in denying the capability to the nation’s 228 million wireless subscribers is unnecessary. Another reason carriers may be warming to the technology is it could also be used for commercial applications. Even under the cell-broadcast emergency alert model, carriers would make money via payments by governmental entities that want to buy network capacity to deliver wireless warnings to the public.
Aiding CellCast is the Civil Emergency Alert Services Association International (formerly Cellular Emergency Alert Systems Association International), which has a licensing pact with CellCast.
And that’s the rub.
For years, the cell-phone industry has had a guttural disdain for CEASA and its seemingly indefatigable (some might say insufferable) leader Douglas “Bud” Weiser. As such, up until now, CEASA has been largely blackballed by the cellular industry. What that has meant is, in terms of influencing emergency warning policy in the national capital, CEASA has not been a player. What the low-budget organization had to say has carried little or no weight with federal policy-makers in the past. CEASA and Weiser were seen as out-of-town troublemakers, anxious to make a quick buck.
But in recent years, CEASA and CellCast have taken their message outside-the-Beltway to government leaders in the Europe, Asia and the Middle East, where the reception has been far more hospitable. Various countries are studying cell-broadcast technology to deliver emergency alerts and public warnings via mobile phones. Some nations, like Holland and South Korea, have pulled the trigger.
Domestically, Einstein Wireless has tested cell-broadcast technology successfully in Appleton, Wis.
Einstein, a unit of Airadigm Communications Inc., has not been shy about thinking outside the box insofar as pursuing cell broadcast and other business practices. Last month, Einstein decided to ditch credit checks, contracts, deposits, activation fees and early termination fees for unlimited calling plans starting at $35 a month.
While CellCast and CEASA have made few inroads at the Federal Communications Commission, whose Chairman Kevin Martin rejected highly regarded CellCast Chief Technology Officer Mark Wood for a seat on the new Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee, cell-broadcast proponents are getting a hearing at the DHS. And that counts for something, given President Bush’s directive in June to shift substantial emergency warning policy oversight to the DHS.
Homeland security officials, particularly those in the department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, have been working with wireless carriers, public TV operators and others to develop a digital platform for emergency alert distribution and is closely monitoring cell-broadcast trials.
Despite not being directly represented on the federal advisory committee, CellCast took a positive view of the opportunity to change more hearts and minds in Washington, D.C.
“We are looking forward to working with the committee members in bringing emergency alerts to cell phones so lives can be saved when facing a natural or man-made disaster,” said Paul Klein, chief operating officer of CellCast.
Committee begins work
The commercial mobile service alert panel, which is scheduled to hold its initial meeting Dec. 12 in Washington, D.C., is charged with developing and recommending technical standards and protocols to facilitate the voluntary transmission of emergency alerts by commercial mobile service providers by Oct. 12, 2007, as required by the WARN Act. That legislation, rolled into a port security bill that Bush signed into law on Oct. 13, authorizes $106 million to develop technical protocols for delivering emergency alerts through wireless and other communications distribution channels. The FCC has been struggling in recent years to develop new emergency alert rules that capitalize on wireless, Internet and other communications technologies.
“While we are certain that the committee will examine how to utilize all mobile devices to alert citizens of an impending threat, we urge the committee to immediately review and adopt cell-broadcast technology,” said Klein. “The nation’s technological infrastructure for cell broadcast is already in place and no new development is necessary for immediate activation. All that is required is for the networks to enable the feature which grants access to Cellcast’s Secure Management System. We will certainly make our pilot programs available to the committee for study.”
The nation’s emergency alert system has remained largely unchanged since its development during the Cold War, with warning capability still largely limited to voluntary participation by TV and radio stations. Since the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina last year, policy-makers have stepped up calls to get in place a modern emergency alert system that is capable of getting warnings to a highly mobile society connected around the clock by wireless devices and the Internet.
Individual national mobile-phone operators have been reluctant to embrace and implement new public-safety-related capabilities sought by federal officials unless all major carriers are on board. The cell-phone industry’s position is short message service can be a near-term fix for wireless emergency alerts, but further study of other technologies is needed for a permanent solution. However, the administration and Congress, smarting with criticism for not doing more to secure the homeland and arm first responders since 9/11, may be unwilling to endure further delay in getting a new-and-improved public alert and warning system in place.