New world. What is the “cell broadcast” that would easily warn the population in case of disaster?

The population was informed of the fire at the Lubrizol plant in Rouen if the “cell broadcast” had been applied. (CORALIE MOREAU / FRANCE-BLUE HAUTE-NORMANDIE / RADIO FRANCE)

The inhabitants of Rouen and its periphery were not warned in time after the Lubrizol disaster. The prefect of Seine-Maritime, Pierre-André Durand, spoke Wednesday, October 30, the forthcoming implementation of “cell broadcast”, in French “cellular diffusion”. It is a mobile alert system used in many countries, but not in France, to warn residents in case of emergency. It is used in the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Finland or South Korea, especially for climate warnings (tornadoes, tsunami …), environmental (dam break, pollution …) or even for kidnapping alerts (Amber).

Cell broadcast alerts take the form of mini priority messages that arrive at the same time on all mobiles. They are displayed on the mobile screen, even if it is locked. The system has many advantages.
First, no need to know the numbers of the recipients because the messages are sent at the level of a “cell” telecom (hence its name “cell broadcast”) which allows to water all mobile located in a zone, like a radio or TV program. It is thus possible to target a particular geographical area (region, city …).

This works, in principle, on all mobiles, even the old ones, whatever the operator, and also on the foreign mobiles, so the tourists of passage can be also alerted. Another strong point: “cell broadcast” is operational even when the voice or data networks are saturated – which may be the case during important events – because they use specific channels. Only constraint: to receive alerts, you must have a mobile (but not necessarily a smartphone) and be in a reception area.

Cellular broadcast is an international protocol that has existed for 20 years. The very first demonstration was made in 1997 in Paris. Yet France has never deployed it, both for technical and budgetary reasons. Indeed, this requires significant infrastructure updates, with “significant technical constraints”, according to the Orange operator we interviewed. The cost would thus be two to three million per operator without counting the investments to be made on the side of the State services. A first deployment attempt took place in 2012 but the project was unsuccessful.

Instead, in France, we preferred to develop in 2016, after the attacks in Paris, a mobile alert app, the famous SAIP app. It was technically easier to implement and less expensive (about 400,000 euros) and it seemed at the time “more modern”. However, the SAIP app had many technical limitations (obligation to install the application on each mobile, no Windows Phone version at the time, etc ..) And, especially, it has experienced many failures. The SAIP application was stopped in 2018. We then relied on social networks, including Twitter and Facebook, with its Safety Check function. But these systems are not nearly as reliable as cell diffusion.

In the end, the system will eventually come into being since a European directive of 2018 obliges states to implement cell broadcast by 2022. This process should be mixed with another system, SMS localized, rendered possible thanks to 4G technology.


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