UK to test location-based mobile emergency alert systems

The UK government, O2, Vodafone and EE will test two mobile emergency alert systems that target messages to specific locations.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

This autumn, the UK government will trial two emergency message alert systems that target mobile devices based on their location.

Beginning in September, the government — in partnership with O2, Vodafone, and EE — will send around 50,000 SMS messages to mobile phones in Suffolk, Glasgow, and Yorkshire as part of a trial aimed at delivering emergency notifications based the location of a person and their mobile device.

The trials will compare a cell broadcast system (CBS) deployed in the US and the Netherlands against the location-based SMS system currently being rolled out in Australia.

While CBS broadcasts a text-type message to all handsets in one or more of an operator's cell areas, the location-based SMS system would send all numbers in a specific location a traditional SMS message.

Since the cell-based approach operates on a different channel to voice and SMS, it doesn't contribute to or suffer from network congestion, the Cabinet Office says in its guidance. SMS meanwhile relies on tracking databases owned by mobile operators to determine which active devices to send a message. 

Australia's SMS emergency system was put to the test for the first time earlier this year during a Victorian bushfire. The Victorian government, which led negotiations with carriers to introduce the location-based alerts, claimed the SMS system worked well in that case, but some people affected by the blaze complained they had not received an SMS alert. The government urged citizens not to rely on SMS alerts alone.

In the UK, SMS will be used in tests around Leiston in Suffolk on 20 November and Glasgow city centre on 3 October, while both SMS and cell broadcasting will be tested around Easingwold in North Yorkshire on 18 September.

"The government and three mobile phone companies — O2, Vodafone, and EE — will conduct separate tests later this year to look at a how different technologies work and how the public react when they receive an emergency alert to their phone," Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said.

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