The federal government has begun scouring the market for a national cell broadcast messaging system (NMS) to send SMS warnings in near real-time during emergencies and natural disasters.
After receiving $2.2 million to get the project underway in this year’s budget, the Communications and Home Affairs departments on Friday issued a request for tender for an end-to-end system.
The standalone NMS – which is yet to receive formal sign-off from the government – is expected to operate independently of Emergency Alert system used by the states and territories.
EA is a national telephone warning system that allows emergency services to send out alerts to individuals using location-based SMS (LB-SMS) in the event of an emergency.
While LB-SMS offers a number of advantages, including the “collection of data when a mobile device receives a message”, its level of effectiveness is limited by variables like network congestion.
“During times of peak activity, such as natural disasters, individuals may not be able to receive messaging due to congestion, although advances in technology are alleviating this,” the RFT states.
Cell broadcast, meanwhile, enables “individuals to be targeted through their physical location to tower(s), regardless of the handset subscription”.
As a “point-to-area communication” between cell towers and all devices, cell broadcast is also geo-specific and geo-scalable, enabling individuals to be targeted locally, regionally or across the nation”.
Concerns with the existing EA system were raised during the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements held in the wake of the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20.
The inquiry recommended the government prioritise and upgrade the EA system after limitations meant EA was “unable to reach everyone facing an… imminent threat”.
The pandemic has also reinforced the need for a national messaging capability, which would have circumvented “significant manual effort to arrange nationwide Covid-19 messaging”.
In response, the departments are seeking to “upgrade mobile telephone networks to enable cell broadcast”, and to develop a cell broadcast entity (CBE) and cell broadcast centre (CBC).
The CBE will be physically situated at Emergency Management Australia within the Department of Home Affairs, which will have responsibility for the protocols and operation of the NMS.
The departments said the NMS should be “fully developed and costed”, with the design and implementation of the NMS expected to being in January 2022.
An initial three-year contract is then slated for March 2022.
“The ability to communicate information in near real-time is anticipated to have a significant impact on reducing and/or preventing the loss of life, property and person during natural disasters and crisis events,” the departments added.