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3G Americas warns against text warning systems

SMS pushers slam SMS

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3G Americas, the club promoting GSM networks in the Americas, has released a report pointing out that SMS is useless as an emergency notification system, even claiming that using the text network that way could interfere with life-saving services.

The snappily-titled Characterizing the Limitations of Third-Party EAS Over Cellular Text Messaging Services (pdf) comes from Dr. Patrick Traynor of the Georgia Institute of Technology. It concludes that the text network was never designed to cope with the bursts of activity that emergencies might generate and that such activity could interfere with voice calls and even 911 services.

There have been several attempts to use text messaging as an alert system, with universities, including Boston University, making it mandatory for students to sign up to such a system. This is despite the notable failure at Louisiana State University when a misunderstanding prevented alerts being sent out to students.

But according to Dr. Traynor, the GSM protocol itself is ill-equipped to cope with bursts of messaging, particularly as SMS messages are generally low-priority traffic. But the lack of security - and thus vulnerability to fraud - makes the technology completely inappropriate.

Anyone who's arrived home just in time to receive an invitation to the pub at work will know that SMS messages can be delayed when the network is busy. Networks differ, but delays of several hours are not rare.

What's strange is to see an association devoted to promoting GSM publishing a report on its inadequacies. At least until one remembers that the FCC recently published the guidelines for use of the CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System), the government-orchestrated emergency alert system that uses operators' text messaging.

Operators are supposed to be implementing CMAS system now, with testing due to start in October for the next two years. Those who chose to opt out of the system will have to send a notification to that effect to all their subscribers, quite possibly offering (pdf) them the chance to drop out of their contracts with no early-termination fee, but those operators who don't opt out are not allowed to charge customers extra, despite the extra costs.

So the service that was supposed to be optional for operators is, effectively, mandatory. No operator can afford to give their entire customer base a get-out-of-contract-free offer, so lobbying that the whole idea is technically inadequate is their only option.

Punters should still be able to opt out of the system before it goes live in 2010, hopefully without such arduous conditions, and assuming they don't want to be informed of future emergencies. ®

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