U.S. launches wireless public safety network

The U.S. government and the country’s top mobile-phone service providers on Tuesday launched a public safety program that will allow people to receive emergency alerts via text message.

New York and Washington D.C. will serve as the launch markets for the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN) service, which will be operational in that market by 2012, according to Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who spoke at a press conference. The remainder of the country will receive the service at the midpoint of 2012, he said.

Out-of-band-technology should allow the text messages to go through even if mobile-phone networks are experiencing heavy traffic. People in the area of the emergency will receive text messages of 90 characters or less about the situation.

People will receive messages based on location, regardless of where their phone is registered. For example, a person with a New York area code would not receive an alert about a crisis in Manhattan when traveling in Chicago. However, people with a Miami area code would receive a text message if they were in New York during an emergency there.

U.S. carriers must provide the service by 2012, but major carriers AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile USA, Sprint and Verizon Wireless have already adopted it prior to the New York rollout.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski joined Fugate at the press conference. Executives from the mobile service providers also appeared at the event. AT&T Wireless President and CEO Randall Stephenson, Sprint’s President of Network Operations Steve Elfman, T-Mobile USA’s President and CEO Philipp Humm and Verizon Wireless President and CEO Lowell McAdam joined the government officials.

PLAN will serve as an adjunct to the television emergency alert system, which is managed by the FCC and FEMA. The program is part of the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) program, the FCC program that requires telecommunication carriers to support a wireless alert system by April 2012.

Most cell phones today do not support PLAN, which requires dedicated software, though most handsets available by 2012 will be PLAN-compliant, the wireless network CEOs promised during the conference. The service will be free to consumers.

Consumers will receive three types of alerts from the service: alerts from the U.S. president, alerts involving imminent threats within a specific region and Amber Alerts, the U.S. government’s alert for missing children. Users can opt out of all but presidential alerts. The alerts will come with unique ringtones and vibration, so that users will know that the message is not a typical message.

In the press conference, Bloomberg noted that New York City can host around 4 million visitors a day, in addition to its 8.8 million residents. Such a system would be invaluable in getting word out about safety threats, both to residents and visitors, Bloomberg said. The system will broadcast messages to the cell phone towers closest to the emergency, so that every cell phone that has communication with these towers will get the emergency messages.

“If people need to take action, the system can transmit instructions clearly, accurately and in a timely manner, which is something that could save countless lives,” Bloomberg said.

“PLAN could make a tremendous difference during disasters like the recent tornadoes in Alabama where minutes — or even seconds — of extra warning could make the difference between life and death,” said FCC’s Genachowski during the press conference. The conference was held across the street from where New York’s World Trade Center towers once stood, as a reminder that emergencies can strike anywhere, Bloomberg said.

FEMA’s Fugate emphasized that it was important for the government to reach people in emergencies by way of the technologies they use today. PLAN is “focused on mobile devices, devices that almost everybody has today in their pockets, and the first things they turn to when to find out more information,” he said.

IDG News reporter Fred O’Connor contributed to this report.

Updated at 1:37 p.m. PT with additional information throughout the story.

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