Protecting U.S. Wireless Customers with CMAS Alerts

Posted by Jim Dwyer III, Senior VP Strategic Development on 5/16/11 12:00 AM

When a series of more than 200 tornadoes struck seven states in late April, an estimated 366 people died and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged. The twisters swept rapidly across the southern and eastern United States, and residents had very little time to escape the destructive storms.

Beginning in April 2012, wireless customers across the country may have more time to seek shelter when storms occur and to respond to other emergency situations. By that date, the Commercial Mobile Alert System, enabling timely public safety alerts from government agencies to individual wireless devices, will be operational. Wireless network operators are a crucial link in delivering this essential communications service. CMAS not only provides an important safety and security service to wireless subscribers, but may also help operators retain customers and develop separate, non-emergency alert services that can generate revenue.

In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act, which called for a program to deliver local, regional, and national emergency alert messages to wireless devices and other mobile radio terminals. As a result of the WARN Act, the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched several integrated public alert and warning system initiatives. CMAS is one of those programs and is being introduced by the Federal Communications Commission.

CMAS will provide three types of messages – presidential, imminent threat and America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response alerts. Presidential alerts, the highest priority messages, are issued by the U.S. President to identify local, regional or national emergencies. Imminent threats provide notification of emergency conditions, such as hurricanes or tornadoes, where individuals should take immediate action. AMBER alerts are related to missing or endangered children in abduction or runaway situations.

Authorized officials at all levels of government – including federal, state, territorial, tribal and local – can access the IPAWS service to send alerts using the common alerting protocol. CAP is an xml-based messaging protocol that ensures emergency messages use a standard format, including information such as the originating agency, intended recipients, emergency severity, target message area and message text. Once a public safety agency generates a CAP message, it is sent through the federal alert gateway’s open platform for emergency networks to wireless network operators providing CMAS service. Using gateways developed by a commercial mobile service provider, network operators then forward CMAS alerts to their subscribers.

CMAS works on CDMA, GSM, UMTS and LTE networks and is scheduled to launch on April 7, 2012, according to FEMA.

CMAS uses cell broadcast technology, which enables delivery of messages in seconds to wireless users based on their current location. Unlike one-to-one SMS technology, where cellular networks can become overloaded during periods of peak usage, cell broadcast’s one-to-many, geographically-based messaging technology is ideal for emergency alerts since it can simultaneously reach a large number of individuals located in a targeted area. Cell switches are required to prioritize CMAS alert messages over regular messages being sent to subscribers.

Wireless network operators providing the service will send alerts at the county level. Ninety characters in length, CMAS messages will identify the emergency, affected area and expected duration, and will provide instructions for obtaining additional information. Subscribers who are roaming will receive alerts if the operator in the roaming network offers the CMAS service and if the subscriber uses a mobile device that is capable of receiving CMAS messages. Though not all devices are cell broadcast-enabled at present, handset manufacturers have committed to providing the functionality in future models. Subscribers will automatically receive the alerts free of charge and will have the ability to opt out of all but Presidential alerts.

Electing to participate

Network operators do not receive government funding to implement CMAS and the FCC does not allow them to charge subscribers for the alerts. However, major operators – including AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel Corp., T-Mobile USA Inc. and Verizon Wireless – have announced plans to support CMAS, and the optional program is widely viewed as an important subscriber care initiative with customer retention implications. According to FCC regulations, 60 days after CMAS is operational, network operators electing not to participate are required to inform subscribers that they will not receive the emergency alerts. Subscribers will have the option of terminating their wireless contracts without penalty or early termination fees and switching to a CMAS-compliant operator. For new subscribers, operators will need to include notice of their non-participation in all point-of-sale materials, such as in-store kiosks, websites and other marketing tools. As a result of these serious ramifications, the majority of network operators are expected to participate.

In 2008, network operators began notifying the FCC of plans to provide the service to subscribers, either everywhere they provide service (“yes” election), in select areas (“in part” election), or not at all (“no” election). Most initially opted out, taking a “wait-and-see” approach as more information about the technology, available technology providers and costs became available. In fact, 470 operators are currently listed on FCC’s site as having elected not to participate in the CMAS program.

With the CMAS program rollout less than one year away, operators planning to provide the service to their subscribers should make their gateway provider decision now. Given the large number of operators yet to commit, those who wait to sign on may join a lengthy queue to conduct testing with FEMA. The testing is required before operators can forward CMAS alerts to subscribers. Operators who commit early can alleviate this pressure, enabling them to focus on other core business objectives.

Mitigating the cost of compliance

When evaluating CMAS solutions, operators should consider the costs associated with implementing and operating a turnkey CMSP system versus selecting a hosted solution. Either a turnkey or a hosted strategy will require operators to upgrade switches to enable cell broadcast functionality. The cost of the software, which is provided by switch manufacturers, will vary based on the operator’s maintenance agreement with its vendor.

Turnkey solutions will require the purchase of multiple CMSP gateways that can aggregate alert messages originating from the federal alert gateway so they can be sent to subscribers with cell broadcast-compatible handsets. Costs associated with additional staff to implement and maintain the system should also be considered, in addition to the need to monitor the program for potential changes as the system evolves.

A hosted solution can provide full compliance with CMAS guidelines without investment in new gateways or additional staff to maintain the system. As a result, operators hoping to minimize associated operating expenditures and capital expenditures should consider this strategy.

A hosted approach presents the lowest impact to an operator’s network. By implementing a simple connection from a hosted provider to a GSM, CDMA, UMTS or LTE network via a standardized TCP/IP interface (3GPP, 3GPP2), operators can deliver the alerts through the cell broadcast network without the costs and complexity associated with an on-network system. Given that operators are prohibited from charging subscribers for CMAS, a hosted solution represents the most affordable means of complying with this important initiative.

Capitalizing on cell broadcast

Because cell broadcast technology delivers messages to mobile subscribers based on their current location, it offers the potential to create new revenue streams. For example, operators could sell alert services to universities for non-emergency communications with students and faculty or to local businesses to provide location-based advertising.

A hosted solution provider with strong in-house custom development capabilities may provide the most cost-effective means of capitalizing on cell broadcast monetization opportunities. Such a provider can ensure affordable CMAS compliance initially while easily enabling operators to implement fee-based services later if their business strategies dictate.

Choosing affordable compliance

CMAS represents an important government initiative that leverages wireless technology to provide timely alerts to the public. With hundreds of operators expected to implement a CMAS solution, now is the time to make a CMSP gateway provider decision, enable cell broadcast capabilities and complete required FEMA testing.

A hosted gateway provider can ensure affordable compliance on day one, without the sizable investment – or the associated headaches – needed to deploy a turnkey CMAS system. Although network operators cannot profit from CMAS, they can leverage the cell broadcast technology required to implement CMAS to develop other revenue-generating opportunities. Choosing a provider with strong in-house development capabilities will enable operators to take full advantage of cell broadcast to create a monetization strategy when the time is right.

Preparing for CMAS

  • To provide CMAS service to subscribers, network operators must complete a multi-step process:
  • Select a gateway provider that supports overall CMAS business objectives.
  • Enable cell broadcast functionality by contacting switch manufacturers. This may involve switch upgrades.
  • Survey the device pool to understand capabilities of handsets to receive CMAS alerts.
  • Update CMAS election status with the FCC using contact information provided on the FCC website.
  • Submit required forms to FEMA to initiate the CMAS testing process. A CMSP gateway provider may be able to assist with this process.
  • Schedule and complete end-to-end testing with FEMA and the CMSP gateway provider.
  • Educate subscribers about CMAS in preparation for rollout in April 2012.

Topics: CMAS, FEMA, FCC, CMSP Gateway