Mark Wood, who among other things coordinates the group that is working harmonizing the address space for cell broadcasts on mobiles at ITU-T, had an intensive discussion with representatives of Sri Lanka mobile operators at a meeting organized at very short notice by LIRNEasia on 2nd of October 2008. He was on his way back from a successful visit to Male to speak at a cell broadcasting workshop co-organized by LIRNEasia and the Telecom Authority of Maldives.
Why is harmonization important? Coastal areas are vulnerable to rapid-onset, broad-spectrum hazards such as tsunamis and cyclones. Coastal areas also attract large numbers of tourists. Therefore, these disasters affect not only the nationals of the countries they occur in, but also tourists. For example, Sweden, which far from the Indian Ocean, had 20,000-30,000 tourists in the tsunami affected coastal areas of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami occurred. It lost 543 citizens and over 1,500 Swedish tourists required emergency medical assistance and transportation home. The 2004 tsunami was one of Sweden’s worst natural disasters, even though it occurred thousands of miles away from its shores.
Cell broadcasting, which is capable of reaching almost all mobiles within the range of a base station, is an ideal vehicle for transmitting early warning (and of coordinating disaster response). However, its efficacy with tourists depends on harmonization of channel addresses. If the channels opened for receipt of warnings in a tourist’s home country are not used for the same purpose in the visited country, it is clear that the tourist will not receive locationally relevant warnings. In addition, it is possible that commercial or other messages could be received on the phones of persons travelling through multiple countries, causing annoyance and confusion.
There are over 66,000 logical channels that can be used for cell broadcasting, with a subset being marked out by ITU-T for public warning purposes. The ITU process seeks to accommodate the interests of countries such as Sri Lanka and India where warnings need to be delivered in multiple languages. Currently, only Tanzania and the Arab Block appear to be actively engaged in the standards discussion. It is time others joined.