Editorial: The Broadcast Channel Problem

In coming weeks, you may hear about a push for carriers to offer a service known as Broadcast Channels. Essentially, this is a public service that allows for important messages to be pushed to all phones on a network in a certain area (or even network-wide). This could be used to warn people in the event of an impending natural disaster, or how where to go in the event of a disaster for help.

However, there are critical problems with the Broadcast Channel system that the mass-media will undoubtedly overlook, and the wireless industry will undoubtedly fail to convey to media consumers.

There are two primary problems; platforms and provisioning. Cell Broadcast Channels are only locked-in on GSM handsets, CDMA phones would have to fall back on a costly text messaging overlay which would leave CDMA carriers bearing significantly higher costs. The other problem, provisioning, is much greater. While most U.S. GSM devices can support Broadcast Channels, both Cingular and T-Mobile left it off in phones.

While it would be a nice idea to think that every phone owner in America would flip their phones open, drill down to the proper setting, and turn on the service… that is not realistic. In the event of a disaster, many who thought they would be informed via their cell phone would in fact not be informed (because the phone ignored the broadcast message) and lives would be lost needlessly.

If the United States is going to deploy something similar to Broadcast Channels, it should be done via a pure SMS system, ensuring all phones receive the message that are on an active service plan. The SMS service should be location-aware (based on the tower the phone is connected to, E911/gpsOne services are not necessary). Finally, the system should be controllable by the user via a web portal from a desktop PC. The end-user should be able to control what types of broadcasts they want to receive.

If implemented properly, the United States can have an alert ecosystem that is much more robust than Europe’s system. If not, lives will be lost deploying the Broadcast Channel system, which is not meant for the United States.