Ringing alarm bells

Kent County Council is considering trialling cell broadcasting, a technology that could send out millions of emergency warning messages to mobile phones simultaneously.

 

Cell broadcasting allows entire populations or specific geographical areas to be reached via their mobiles within seconds without dialling a phone number, and is significantly faster than sequential SMS messaging or auto-dialling, which could jam the network.

 

Mobile users can activate an emergency channel on their existing phones, one of 64,000 unused information streams already set aside by networks, which would tune their phones like a radio to instantly receive an emergency broadcast.

 

The ‘Cell Alert’ system planned for the trial has been developed by the Cellular Emergency Alert Service Association (CEASA). The trial needs network backing to go ahead – T-Mobile is in talks with the organisation this week.

 

The Kent trial comes after the government rejected a recommendation from the National Steering Committee on Warning and Informing the Public to back the technology for implementation on a national scale.

 

Keith Ferrin, Kent cabinet member for policy development, said the council aims to use the technology for flood warning. ‘We have the longest coastline in the UK and much of that is low-lying,’ he said.

 

‘Mobile phones are more popular among people on lower incomes compared with landlines, and so we could reach more people than radio or telephone warnings.’ The council also wants to use the technology to alert road users in advance to accidents.

 

The Environment Agency is planning a £9.4m warning system called Floodline Warnings Direct, due to come online this August, but the system will focus on auto-dialling, SMS messaging and digital TV broadcasts, and at present does not include plans for cell broadcasting.

 

Today’s flood warning system uses loudhailers and telephone-based Automated Voice Messaging (AVM) and is described by the agency itself as outdated, limited in capacity and restrictive, with a low take-up of people, despite ad campaigns.

 

An agency spokeswoman said cell broadcasting had not beendiscounted for local flood warning. ‘We’re investigating the possibility of using mobile phone network providers to disseminate warnings directly. Early indications show it is technically feasible, but it would need to be tried and tested to prove the concept,’ she said.