Bringing emergency alerts to new level
Sprint Nextel has agreed to deploy an emergency-alert solution developed by location-based services vendor SquareLoop that is designed to notify cellular subscribers in even small geographic areas targeted by emergency officials.
Sprint Nextel will deploy the Mobile Alert Network in Contra Costa County, Calif., which is located in the San Francisco Bay area and is the state’s ninth-largest county with about 930,000 residents. Sprint is the first carrier to agree to deploy the network, which will be used to push emergency alerts to Sprint subscribers living and working in the county.
The county will pay $50,000 to use services provided by the network in what amounts to a one-year trial, according to Art Botterell, community warning system manager for the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department. Botterell said that one of the network’s attractions is its ability to geographically target alert recipients.
“The ‘biggie’ for us is that here is a feasible way for us to target these messages down to a few blocks if we need to,” Botterell said. “New York City, for example, is very sensitive about this issue because they had that steam-pipe explosion, and they wanted to address an eight-block area, and they didn’t have any technology that would let them do that.”
Emergency-alert technology has evolved well beyond simple text messages, thanks in large part to advancements in handset technology, Botterell said.
“You can have distinctive ringtones, you can transmit pictures, you could even have a wireless milk carton for missing kids,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’re really interested in — it gives us so much flexibility in terms of the user experience.”
However, location-based emergency-alert technologies generally leverage global positioning system (GPS) technology embedded in wireless handsets. Whenever GPS is present, privacy issues loom, which is why alert services historically have been made available to subscribers on an opt-in basis. This creates a problem for both public safety and wireless carriers, according to Botterell.
“One of the big challenges has been, how do we get geographic targeting without it turning into a big database-management issue for the carriers and without it becoming invasive to people’s personal privacy?” he said. “Nobody wants to be tracked by their cell phone.”
SquareLoop of Reston, Va., solved the privacy problem by creating an application that resides on the subscriber’s handset and executes an authentication handshake, according to Joe Walsh, the company’s chief operating officer.
“When we send a message out, we embed an authentication key, the location where the message is valid and a timeframe,” Walsh said. “That application grabs the message and asks, ‘Am I in the right location?’ If the answer is yes, it displays the message. If the answer is ‘No I’m not,’ it will ignore the message. That way, we don’t need to know where the subscriber is to target a message. It’s almost a message-filtering capability.”
Another benefit of the Mobile Alert Network is that it is a hosted service that delivers redundancy and efficiency other platforms can’t match, Walsh said.
“We have a direct connection into Sprint’s network, which gives us a much more reliable delivery structure. … Each of the connections is monitored, and we maintain redundant connections, which delivers the reliability,” Walsh said. “That’s really necessary if you look at some of the campus-alerting scenarios where you’ve heard of messages being delayed.”
Walsh added that SquareLoop is talking to other wireless carriers about deploying the alert platform. For Sprint, the decision to become the first carrier to use the system was easy, according to Chris Hackett, vice president of public sector sales programs for Sprint.
“The FCC is already looking at this as an issue and how to address it, and we as a carrier want to be as proactive as possible, so we decided to go down this path,” Hackett said. “Ultimately, we think that’s the right thing to do for all of our customers, and we assume that eventually the other carriers will get on board — they just haven’t gotten there yet.”
But Hackett added that Sprint hopes its proactive embracing of SquareLoop’s platform will provide it with a competitive advantage in the public safety marketplace.
“It strengthens the relationship we have with first responders and differentiates us to first responders, because of their understanding that Sprint is focused on the needs of first responders and developing solutions so that they can more safely do their jobs,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re seen in that light.”
Though excited about the deployment, Botterell stressed that SquareLoop’s solution is just one of many tools in the emergency-alert toolkit.
“Every time there’s an event, there’s a ‘hero’ technology,” he said. “During the California wildfires, it was reverse 911, for example. But there is no hero — you have to use a lot of technologies in concert.”