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What CMAS means for mobile subscribers

Mark Titus of TeleCommunication Systems (TCS) explains the features and use cases for the new Commercial Mobile Alerts System (CMAS) that was launched earlier this year.

By Mark TitusPhoto of Mark Titus

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) this year launched Integrated Personal Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the gateway used to send location-based information to mobile subscribers by utilizing the Commercial Mobile Alerts System (CMAS).

CMAS, a new public-safety alerting system, lets owners of enabled mobile devices receive text-like message alerts for imminent threats to safety, depending on the subscriber's geographical location. This service works wherever a user goes and does not require prior knowledge of zip codes or advanced registration.

This new communication system assures emergency alerts will not become congested in highly populated areas, which occurs with standard mobile voice and texting services, particularly in times of crisis.

How does the CMAS alert system work?

Authorized local, state or national government officials send notifications concerning public-safety emergencies — for example, tornado warnings or terrorism alerts — to CMAS. Then, CMAS validates the alert, authorizes the sender and sends the message to participating wireless carriers. Wireless carriers deliver the alerts from their cell towers to CMAS-enabled mobile devices in the affected area. These alerts will be displayed on devices in a manner similar to a text message.

The technology involved in the alert system offers distinctive features to subscribers that are not available through conventional alerting systems. These features include:

  • Location Targeting: The CMAS alerts are broadcast to a geographically targeted area, and follow users where ever they go. Therefore any person with a CMAS capable cell phone in active alert area would receive a message, regardless of where they call home. The CMAS system does not need to know your phone number. For example, a wireless customer from Chicago visiting downtown New York City would receive a CMASalert, if there was an active threat in the New York City area. However, while that subscriber is in New York City, he/she will NOT receive alerts targeted in Chicago.
  • Covers Only Critical Emergency Alerts: The CMAS system will only broadcast three types of alerts: 1) Alerts issued by the President; 2) Alerts concerning life-threatening risks; and 3) AMBER Alerts.
  • Automated Registration: Assuming customers have a CMAS-enabled mobile device and are current subscribers with a participating wireless provider, they will be registered automatically for this service. Participating carriers may provide the option for subscribers to block all alerts, except those issued by the President.
  • Free Alerts: Customers will not be charged for receiving CMAS alerts.
  • Distinct Alert Sound and Vibration:CMAS alerts will be accompanied by a unique alert sound and vibration, so it can accommodate hearing-impaired and visually-impaired subscribers.

The Cellular Telecommunication Industry Association (CTIA) designates CMAS-compatible devices as being wireless emergency alerts-capable (http://www.ctia.org/consumer_info/safety/index.cfm/AID/12081). A recent survey of carrier web sites indicates that more than 30 CMAS-compatible mobile devices are commercially available (now including the iPhone).

Today, text messages have become a dependable avenue for communication during emergencies. As FEMA notes on its web site, voice and data networks may become flooded with users following a disaster; wireless device users are advised to send a text message or e-mail to loved ones to notify them that they are OK. Unlike a voice call, which requires established dedicated circuits during the entirety of the call, text messages are sent as packets of data and are delivered within seconds, assuming network resources are available.

The CMAS alerting system utilizes life-saving technology that is expected to reach vast numbers of mobile devices in a quick and effective manner. CMAS is currently in early adoption by government agencies and CMSPs, and the service is probably one of the best-kept secrets today in wireless public safety.

Currently, most consumers are still not aware of the benefits of this government-operated and government-sponsored service. CMAS alerts are free; they automatically travel to specific cell towers and then to phones, so the alerts do not track the movement or location of a phone. Even with the release of the iPhone 5 and iOS 6, CMAS government alerts' new feature functionality went largely unmentioned. Carriers understandably have not invested in advertising or promotion of the service, due to the fact that CMAS is purely a cost-recovery service. As a result, it may take other industry-allied groups to take a more prominent role in consumer promotion.

Meanwhile, FEMA has been cautious in limiting CMAS weather-alert warnings to avoid creating "alert fatigue" by sending too many alerts and potentially desensitizing the consumer. Moving forward, consumers should expect to receive more than just weather-related information (e.g., HAZMAT spills, terrorist alerts, etc.), as additional federal, state and local government authorities come online. Additional work is being performed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to study the social impact of alerting and best practices on methods for alerting consumers.

As the CMAS service continues to develop, the next steps are to determine the preparedness of wireless carriers to transmit nationwide alerts, expand coverage into rural areas, and develop support for multi-language alert information that will be critical for continued success and widespread adoption by consumers.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Mark Titus is vice president of messaging product management for TeleCommunication Systems.

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