SMS Alerting Falls Short, Just Ask ObamaMonday, August 25, 2008
There is a new law that says FEMA will decide when to send SMS messages to people who need to be alerted to a problem. However, Obama just proved beyond a doubt that SMS is NOT a mission-critical service. Thousands of SMS messages announcing Obama's running mate were sent, but many people did not receive them until the next day and many newspapers awaiting verification of his selection missed the front page placement of the news because the alert arrived after deadlines passed.
Was this because the alert was sent too late? No, it was sent on time but the delays in delivering SMS messages are unpredictable. The more you send, the less likely people are to receive them in a timely manner. Each intended recipient's cell phone has its own phone number so each message must be sent individually-SMS messages are sent sequentially, one number at a time. In the case of Obama's text message, networks were clogged with SMS traffic that had to wait its turn.
This probably wouldn't happen in an emergency situation, but hackers and others who wanted to have a little fun were busy sending out bogus text messages about Obama's running mate as well.
Now, in addition to the typical SMS message delivery delays, with the new federal system of alerting, FEMA will decide which messages qualify for emergency SMS notification. Remember Katrina when the Federal Government sat on its hands for several days before deciding New Orleans was in trouble? Think about the same people at FEMA calling a meeting to determine whether a request for an emergency SMS message was warranted. If I were mayor of New Orleans, I would want to be the one to say when to send an SMS alert to the citizens of my city.
We have been taught to call 911 if we think there is a problem, and we are told not to wait-call 911 and ask for help. If the SMS rules were applied to 911 calls, the way I read them, we would need a vote of a committee within FEMA before we could dial the phone. This makes very little sense and the reality is that even after FEMA "blesses" an emergency alert to be sent out, SMS is not the most effective way to alert people, as the Obama SMS text message has shown.
What if Obama's message had been about a major disaster? It might not have reached all the media, radio stations, TV stations and press, and those who did not receive it would not have known there was a problem. They might have received the alert the next day or the day after. And, honestly, I get so many junk text messages that I usually ignore them. If one was an alert for me to vacate my house because of an impending storm or fire, I probably wouldn't notice it.
If you cannot send me an emergency text message that has a distinctive sound when it arrives and is guaranteed to arrive in a timely manner, don't bother sending it. Obama, who is said to be technically literate, was not aware of the issues with SMS or text messaging-very few people are. They simply assume that when a message is sent to a phone it will arrive quickly and alert the person it was sent to. The reality is that text messages are not guaranteed-delivery messages, and the time to deliver one can run from minutes to non-delivery. My understanding is that any undelivered messages are flushed out of the system after 72 hours. SMS is not a mission-critical system.
I hear there are things afoot to change how SMS is delivered and several companies are working on a way to send messages to thousands of people at the same time, but this probably is not true SMS since SMS requires messages to be sent to specific phone numbers. I see two problems with changing how SMS is delivered. The first is that all of us (260 million) will need a new phone and it will take at least five years for everyone to trade in their phones for new ones, especially if they have to sign up for a full two years of service. (There were still subscribers with analog phones when analog was turned off in February 2008.)
Summarizing SMS as it is today, each SMS message must be sent to a specific phone number and even "group" SMS is nothing more than a string of phone numbers dialed sequentially, it is not a guaranteed-delivery service and many systems flush out undelivered SMS messages after 72 hours.
When I receive an SMS message today, my phone vibrates or sets off a tone. There is no distinction between an emergency alert message and a message from anyone who sends me SMS messages during the day. And there are times when my phone has to be turned off-in a doctor's office, in a classroom or other settings where there are signs indicating that the use of cell phones is not permitted. Then, of course, there is the period of time when I am on an airplane with my phone turned off, or just plain out of range. Some of these issues will affect any type of mass alerting system, but most of them can be resolved by finding a different technology to deliver the messages.
You could liken SMS alerts to reverse 911 systems that are being deployed in many cities and counties around the nation, but with one difference. Many of these reverse 911 systems are connected to multiple phone lines and really can simultaneously deliver a voice message to groups of phones. But during the recent Gap fire just north of Santa Barbara, as well as the fires in Orange and San Diego counties, the reverse 911 systems still took many hours to notify a relatively small group of people who needed to evacuate. Two hours during a fire storm can mean the difference between getting out and being trapped in your home.
Obama's attempt at SMS alerting should be considered one of many warnings to the powers that be. SMS is NOT a mission-critical method of notification for large groups of people. In this case, the only harm was to reporters who were waiting for confirmation of his choice of running mate and missed their paper's deadline, and the disappointment of people who expected to be among the first to know, only to find out from news reports before they received their SMS notification.
I haven't heard any comments from network operators about SMS overload, but in a situation where we are trying to notify people in large numbers, even in a small portion of the country (say New Orleans and surrounding areas), there will be some network congestion. SMS messages are not carried on the voice channels, and only a finite number can be sent per hour over the data channels.
This country is having problems solving its first responder communications issues, and progress since 9/11 has come only because the first responder community has not waited for the Federal Government. Some seem to think they have alerts to the general population covered. I don't think so. The real solution for public alerts needs to include all forms of communications-radio, TV, SMS (perhaps), reverse 911, etc. Trusting only one method to get the message out is not a good idea, and if SMS is the method of choice, many alerts will be received too late to seek refuge from the storm, fire, etc.
As a final note, if I were a mayor or governor, I would not want to have to wait for someone at HLS or FEMA to decide whether or not to send out an alert to the citizens I govern. I can see it now: [FEMA Person] "If I authorize this alert and my boss disagrees that it was necessary, I might get in trouble. Perhaps I should wait a little while or try to reach my boss (who is at a party, on vacation or somewhere unreachable)."