Mobile Phone Alerting: Opportunities for Broadcast

I was asked recently to participate in an interesting workshop that left me with a sense of opportunities for broadcast radio to solve some limitations of cellular service.

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The workshop was named “Future of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Research Directions.” It was an orchestrated gathering of folks who had created and executed projects for mobile-based Wireless Emergency Alerting, or WEA. The projects were funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate, DHS S&T. And there I was, the sole participant in the group who had also created an Emergency Alerting project for DHS S&T, but using technology for the older, nobler definition of “wireless”: broadcasting.

The purpose of the workshop was for representatives to present a summary of their DHS S&T-funded WEA projects, their findings and recommendations to the others; imagine a dozen projects, each its own silo, where there’s no knowledge of any project except your own. It was exhilarating to hear about advanced mobile phone alerting projects from Georgia Tech, RAND Corporation, Carnegie Mellon University’s Cylab Mobility Research Center, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and others of equal stature.

FOUR TYPES OF PROJECTS

DHS S&T had categorized the projects into one of four groups: Enhancing the Public Response, WEA Cyber Security, Reaching At-Risk Populations and Improving Geotargeting.

As the morning progressed, I was surprised to find that every presentation had, I believe, direct relevance to broadcasting, such as building models to predict the behavior of a population who receives a geotargeted alert (do people head toward the event, freeze in place trying to figure out what action to take, or…? ). Geotargeting, too, was well researched; there are serious research efforts to define ways to deliver the right alert message only to those affected by it and those nearby the event.

One project delved into WEA cybersecurity, offering pages of best practice guidelines for ensuring an alert received by your mobile phone is true and accurate. Dr. Helena Mitchell of Georgia Tech related the results of her team’s project to research how well a mobile phone alert is recognized by people with disabilities — a fascinating project that built faux mobile phones with built-in bright lights, buzzers and vibrators to test with blind, low-vision, deaf and hard of hearing volunteers. I was a consultant on Dr. Mitchell’s team when the volunteers participated in the research trials at Georgia Tech, and was impressed with the meticulous preparation for the trials and observed the volunteers’ reactions to the mock phone’s beeps, LED flashes and vibrations.

MOVING THE MOBILE INDUSTRY. OR NOT.

It struck me that the other DHS S&T projects had completed some intense research and study, worthy in its detail and execution, but in every case, it seemed a massive effort had been put forth to move the immovable cell phone industry: To retrofit best alerting practices into the miserly 190 characters allotted for the purpose (future expansion to over 300 characters!); to create an alerting message rich with detail and instruction that could automagically transcend the limits of cellular technology — an efficient technology that is predicated on not every subscriber needing to make a call at the same time.

The epiphany: Broadcasting does not have these limitations. One station signal can reach millions of listeners and the number of people tuning into a broadcast doesn’t affect its availability in the slightest. In comparison to cellular technology, broadcast technology remains an open field for clever innovation. Need a new data transmission path? Then design and implement a new FM RDS Open Data Application (ODA) and Boom! There it is. Need to move more data, faster? Then implement an RDS2 ODA and increase the data speed by 10 times. Need multiple data channels for live captioning? Then use the HD Radio Program Service Data path, and there … it’s done. It seemed odd that the mobile carriers are resistant to include a comprehensive emergency alerting platform in their infrastructure. If the carriers disliked having any emergency alerting platform in their system, they should pay broadcasters to relieve that burden and integrate a broadcast-based rich-media emergency alerting scheme into mobile devices, as in the FM/RDS/HD Radio chip within the phone.

TELLING THE BROADCAST STORY

As the last presenter before the lunch break, I needed to tell the group a broadcast story about the “Accessible CAP RDS Demonstration Project for U.S. Gulf Coast States” to the group, a project I architected and managed at NPR Labs from 2013–14. (The project’s final report to DHS S&T can be read and downloaded at http://tinyurl.com/rwee-acap.)

Its mission was to create accessible alerts using over-the-air RDS, targeted for the deaf and hard-of-hearing population in the five states that border the Gulf Coast. The robust Public Radio Satellite System was the non-Internet data pipe feeding alert messages to the 26 participating public radio stations. Allen Hartle at Jump2Go designed custom RDS hardware for each station to process and manage downlinked messages. The deaf/hard-of-hearing participants received the message on custom FM RDS receivers designed by Joop Beunders of Catena Radio Design, and they read the message on a simple Android tablet running a custom app I developed. The project opened to a little fanfare in RWEE’s sister publication (http://tinyurl.com/rwee-demo).

By DHS S&T admission, the project was a success, and proved its worth in reaching at-risk populations by reliably sending an up to 4,000 character alert messages from FEMA’s alerting infrastructure.

The other participants stirred in their seats — their worthy projects had completed good research — but in very controlled environments and not affecting mobile carrier industry directly; the freedom of broadcasting technology had allowed NPR Labs to become a small niche manufacturer of customized FM RDS encoding and receiving equipment, developer of Android software, and build small-scale shipping logistics, customer support help, firmware upgrades, quality control, and every other aspect of a manufacturer, all within a small budget and staff and yet affect change and innovation directly within the broadcast industry.

WHAT’S “WEA”?

As the afternoon progressed I became more convinced of the sheer strength of broadcasting for solving the mobile industry’s nagging alerting problems. Different presenters lamented glumly that their research volunteers — and the public in general, it was felt — have no brand recognition of “WEA” until the concept of alerts-on-your-phone was explained; the fragility of mobile service during extended power outages was discussed as a problem that was beyond the group’s scope to solve; and solutions were suggested to the vexing problem of determining the exact position of phone users so they would get only the messages affecting their immediate area.

CHANGING MISPERCEPTIONS

Nonetheless, I felt there remains a misperception of broadcast’s relevancy that must be overcome; one workshop participant laughingly chided me for “trying to sell a horse and buggy,” yet I see people like Jump2Go’s Allen Hartle advancing the art of FM RDS alerting with a project that equipped six Seattle radio stations with modern JumpGate RDS encoders and a backend system that will give local authorities the ability to insert RDS alerts, or his re-imagining of the CAP RDS project for broadcast to include AMBER alerts, and a web-connected component — the prototype can be seen at www.stayalert.org.

It is my hope that the committee on the Future of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Research Directions will appreciate the broadcast services and future technologies freely available to solve the emergency alerting challenges in the mobile realm.

Rich Rarey is RWEE technical editor and principal of Rareworks LLC consulting. Email him at rwee@nbmedia.com.



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