Canberra wants to use a national messaging system to alert citizens about emergencies

The Australian government hopes the national messaging system will be a standalone end-to-end cell broadcast system.

The Australian government has gone to market to find a provider to help develop a standalone end-to-end cell broadcast national messaging system (NMS) that can be used to send text messages to mobile devices during emergencies, such as a natural disaster.

According to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, Australia's state and territories currently use a location-based-SMS (LB-SMS) system to provide warnings to targeted individuals, however, its efficacy is limited.

These messages are delivered by the Emergency Management Australia (EMA) on behalf of the Commonwealth, as well as state and territory emergency services to the Australian public during national events of concern.

"While LB-SMS provides a number of advantages, including the collection of data when a mobile device receives a message, its effectiveness can be limited by network congestion and other variables," the department said.

"During times of peak activity, such as a natural disaster, individuals may not be able to receive messaging due to congestion, although advances in technology are alleviating this constraint."

The department believes a cell broadcast, on the other hand, will enable individuals to be targeted based on their physical location to a cell tower, regardless of their handset.

"Cell broadcast is a point-to-area communication between the mobile operator radio cell tower(s) and all hand-held devices in a specified geographic area … cell broadcast is also geo-specific and geo-scalable, enabling individuals to be targeted locally, regionally, or across the nation," it added.

Outlined in the tender documents, the department said the NMS needed to be able to deliver text messages, warnings, and alerts in near real-time, and that it should have the capability to send "richer information", including longer text messages, images, URLs, maps, videos or a link to another medium.

Messages that are sent using cell broadcast technology should also not cause, nor be impacted by network congestion, the department said.

Further, the department said the delivery channel technology has the ability geofence so it can be used to geographically target specific areas of the community.

At the same time, the NMS needs to have security mechanisms in place to prevent hacking and spoofing of warning and alert messages and be produced as a one-way message that does not require recipient data to be stored.

Delivering an NMS forms part of the Australian government's commitment to addressing findings uncovered by the Royal Commission into national natural disaster arrangements. The Royal Commission concluded that Australia's information and warning systems technology needed to be improved to help deliver messages quickly and alert the public of emerging and imminent threats.

The department further noted the COVID-19 pandemic has "reinforced public expectations of, and the need for the Australian Government to play a greater role during nation-wide disasters, emergencies and crisis events".

"A national capability is required to support the delivery of messages to the entire nation during such events. This was highlighted by the significant manual effort to arrange nationwide COVID-19 messaging, which would have been circumvented by a cell broadcast messaging system," it said.

Tender submissions close 9 September 2021. The initial contract terms are for three years from January 2022 to January 2025, with the option of a one-year extension.

Last May, the federal government said it would spend AU$37.1 million to improve the resiliency of the nation's telco infrastructure in the wake of the 2020 Black Summer bushfires.

A report from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said only 3% of mobile tower outages from 19 December 2019 to 31 January 2020 during the bushfire peak, were due to fire damage, and of the 1,390 total facilities that were impacted by the fires, only 1% of incidents were a direct result of fire damage. Loss of power was the main cause of outages, being responsible for 88% of all outages over the same period.

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