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Technology for an effective public warning system

Location-based SMS: The smarter way to save lives

An effective public warning system must be rapid, reliable and require no prior action by the people it’s trying to protect.
How can governments provide one? At a time of growing uncertainty and risk, it’s an increasingly important question.


The short answer is through telecommunications companies and network providers. Regulators and law makers now see the mobile phone as a powerful public-safety tool and cellular network providers as playing a central role in public warning systems. The first clause of Article 110 of the European Electronic Communication Code (EECC) Directive, EU law since 2018, requires countries to “ensure that . . . public warnings are transmitted by providers of mobile number-based interpersonal communications services to the end-users concerned” by June 21, 2022.

The longer answer is that it means deciding between different technologies. There are two options for governments and network providers:

  • Cell broadcast, which dates to the early 1990s, when the first GSM standards were introduced and uses the mobile signalling channel for point-to-area, bulk messaging
  • Location-based SMS, a newer service that uses subscribers’ mobile numbers for point-to-point, one-to-one, communication.

The decision can be clouded by misconceptions and out-dated ideas about location-based SMS. Capacity and congestion concerns continue to dog the technology, but they’re an anachronism in the age of 4G and 5G. Location-based SMS capacity is measured in live networks at 3,000 messages per second per network provider and is increasing year by year. To put this in perspective: the entire population of Venice could now receive an SMS alert in under 30 seconds.

In the era of high-volume, high-velocity traffic, communication speed simply isn’t an issue. To cite another example, nearly 180 billion SMS messages were sent in 2017 in France, according to the French electronic communications regulator ARCEP; the main four French carriers, in other words, sent through 5,400 messages every second for 365 days.

In public warning systems, urgent mass SMS traffic can be prioritised through throttling and cell spreading.

Historically, location-based SMS has also raised data security and privacy concerns, but these aren’t an issue either. The public warning system operator can only view on screen anonymised aggregated totals, for example, for the mobiles that successfully received the alert. The risks of hoaxes can be managed: network providers will block fake messages through SMS sender authorisation and ID; they can include information about the sender and a web address to authenticate it further.

As technology progresses, in fact, SMS looks increasingly the smarter option. It has several advantages over cell broadcast.

Granularity – Location-based SMS allows networks to customise messages for vulnerable groups and to send individuals messages even after they’ve left an affected area, particularly useful if follow-up medical treatment is needed, for example, after a chemical attack. It also has greater potential for ‘precision targeting’ geographically. Cell Broadcast services are based on current location, but because they’re cell-based they are, by their nature, potentially less ‘granular’.

Bi-directionality – Unlike cell broadcast platforms, location-based SMS provides confirmation of delivery and service ‘performance’ data in real-time, and it allows authorities to monitor the development of situations and better plan the deployment of resources. Crucially, it’s a two-way communication tool: it allows operators to store messages and send updates, and users to reply, often providing vital information to emergency services. It is inherently a more dynamic platform than cell broadcast. For governments in Europe, it helps meet the EU Reverse 112 requirement: users are able to send replies back to a central emergency number for mobiles, such as 112.

Reliability – Unlike a cell broadcast alert, an SMS alert cannot be disabled by the user and it is more likely to be delivered safely and be seen. Also, contact is easily made in the recipient’s own language: SIM card numbers identify users’ country of origin, helping authorities meet their duty of care to both nationals and visitors ‘roaming’ on their networks.

Compatibility and reach – The technology is compatible with every mobile manufactured worldwide and works on 3G, 4G and 5G networks. There is no need for handsets to be reconfigured or manually enabled by users. The ubiquity of SMS-enabled phones means location-based SMS can reach more than 98% of users.

It would, of course, be wrong to claim location-based SMS is perfect. Unlike cell broadcast, it cannot over-ride the mute function and it doesn’t make the phone vibrate. There is also a certain user-interface disadvantage, when compared with cell broadcast: messages look like any other messages sent to a phone. But the benefits by far outweigh the drawbacks. Its core strength is its youth. Location-based SMS is continually evolving and moving with developments in cellular technology. It’s tomorrow’s technology today.


Interested to read more?

This is the second in a series of blogs to address the issues and challenges of meeting the requirements of the EU Directive 110 on population alerting. 

Further reading about Population Alerting:


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