How does the alert system that lands on all mobile phones in France work?

A new system for alerting and informing populations will be put in place at the end of the month. It is based on so-called cell broadcast technology.

France is finally deploying a modern alert system to inform its citizens in an area facing danger! Announced by Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin at the end of 2021, FR-Alert will be put into service by June 21. It will be reserved for state services, such as ministries or prefectures. And activated in the event of natural disasters such as floods or storms, serious public security events such as attacks or even health problems and biological and chemical risks.

This new device will be based on a technology never before used by the public authorities in France. This is cell diffusion, cell broadcast Where CB in English, already widely adopted in the United States or Japan.

Rest assured, the state has not collected the numbers of all citizens in a large file and will not follow your movements with a magnifying glass. In fact, it is the operators who will be responsible for disseminating the notifications while respecting the anonymity of the data.

A fast bulk shipment

the cell broadcast consists in effect of sending a text message to all telephones via one or more target antennas. There are several advantages to this technology. This makes it possible to target users geolocated when they are near a danger, so that they get to safety. The alert can be sent to many people in just a few seconds thanks to a dedicated channel which avoids network congestion phenomena. Finally, the Android and iOS operating systems take these notifications into account in a special way: they emit a shrill sound and display them in full screen when they are received, even when the latter is locked. This reduces the likelihood of missing out.

To achieve this, the operators had to update their networks, but also deploy a single communication interface between them and the services likely to request them. Users’ iOS devices will need to be updated to benefit from it, but not Android which is compatible by default. On the other hand, there is no need to download anything, as was the case for the SAIP application launched in 2016 following the attacks of 2015. It had been used very little for this reason.

Geolocated SMS in addition

This technology can work with older generations of telephony, but the Ministry of the Interior has specified that it will only be used only for phones connected to 4G for cost reasons. 5G will be affected in the medium term. It will therefore be necessary to supplement the device with another older technology to address the telephones connected only in 2G or 3G.

These are location-based SMS (LB-SMS, Location-Based-SMS). You probably remember the text message “Alerte Covid 19” received by all French people during the first confinement in the spring of 2020. It caused a lot of talk because some citizens received it late. It is this method that was then used and which has the defect of staggering the shipments when they are too massive.

A 2018 European circular obliges member states to set up an alert system via mobile telephony by June 21. France thus waited until the last moment to comply. If cell broadcasting will be launched in time, geolocated SMS will be deployed during the second half of the year. Notifications have already been sent to certain regions since the beginning of the year as part of Civil Security exercises.

Source: European directive, Ministry of the Interior

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