Government to Send Emergency Text Alerts Via Cellphones

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A number of media outlets have reported that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that major cellular carriers will begin to carry emergency text alerts. Given the subscriber bases of the four major telecoms involved -- AT&T (T), Verizon Wireless, Sprint-Nextel (S), and T-Mobile (DTE) -- the alerts could reach 250 million people.

"This is the ability to have your mobile device be an emergency alert device," Genachowski said, according to a Bloomberg report. "Government officials can send alerts in the event of major disasters, can do it on a localized basis, and can make sure that the alerts get through even if there's network congestion." Such alerts could be sent at a national, state or municipal level, depending on the extent of the emergency.

The system will probably be used infrequently because disasters effecting large numbers of people are few and far between. But some recent incidents have exemplified the circumstances under which such a system would be most valuable. Indeed, had it been up and running Monday night, it could have broadcast news about the cresting Mississippi River flood waters that reached Memphis: It is probable that not everyone in the region around the city knew the extent or level of the flood, nor where it was likely to do the most damage.

Even so, it is possible that such a system may be redundant before it launches. In this age of instant cellular communication particularly through Facebook, Twitter and SMS, how necessary is a government-run information dissemination system? The news of Osama Bin Laden's death reached many people via Twitter before it was officially announced. Today, both good news and bad travels fast -- even without help from Washington.

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