The Truth About Wireless Alerts?

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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