Cell broadcast: Germany launches SMS warning system. Why now? – Politics


For a few days now, mobile phone owners in Germany have been informed by SMS about the new disaster warning system cell broadcast. It says, for example: “You can get test alerts for the warning day on December 8, 2022 on your mobile phone.” At eleven o’clock, accompanied by a loud sound signal, a warning should pop up on the screens of almost all mobile phones in Germany. The aim is to test the new warning system for possible weaknesses before the planned introduction in February 2023. The warnings are sent to all compatible mobile phones that are logged into a radio cell – regardless of internet access.

With the introduction, the federal government is drawing a lesson from the flood disaster in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate last year, in which more than 180 people died. The severe storms in July 2021 showed that the existing systems were not sufficient to warn the population of the danger. The nationwide siren network was dismantled after the end of the Cold War and replaced by a so-called warning device mix. However, this did not provide for cell broadcast.

Germany is way too late with the introduction now, in other countries the system has been used successfully for years. Japan has been using cell broadcasts to warn of earthquakes since 2007. In the USA, where the system has been in use since 2012, residents receive, among other things Manhunt calls on cell phones. And in many EU countries, too, the technology has long been part of the crisis infrastructure. For example in Greece, where during the devastating forest fires last year the population was specifically informed about approaching fire walls or asked to evacuate.

Apps like Nina or Katwarn have to be downloaded separately

According to experts, cell broadcast could have been implemented in Germany a long time ago. As early as 2001, the system appeared in a report published by the Ministry of the Interior hazard report as a positive example for electronic warning systems. In the years to come, the Federal Network Agency and the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) also took a closer look at the system.

Since a large number of sirens were dismantled in Germany in the early 1990s, the federal government has provided for a mix of warning devices in the event of a disaster. Since then, civil protection has been carried out using the so-called modular warning system (Mowas): federal, state and local authorities, but also civil protection authorities and the weather service can use sirens to warn radio and television stations, Deutsche Bahn and, for several years now, warning apps. However, cell broadcast has not been one of them until now.

Although an EU directive issued in 2018 actually obliged the member states to introduce an electronic warning system for civil protection by June 2022, the federal government only decided in 2021 to actually enforce cell broadcast. Previously, it relied on a passage in the EU directive that also allowed “equivalent” warning systems and continued to rely on the existing warning apps.

The problem: apps like Nina, short for emergency information and news app, or Katwarn from the Fraunhofer Institute are only used by a minority in Germany. They also have to be downloaded separately and therefore, unlike Cell Broadcast, do not work on older cell phones without an Internet connection. On some smartphones, the notifications must also be activated first.

The fact that there are always problems in practice with Nina and Katwarn was already apparent when the warning day in September 2020 failed. The shortcomings became even more apparent during the flood disaster in July 2021. Nina, for example, remained silent after media reports in the heavily affected Ahrweiler district. There were also problems at Katwarn. According to information from the Fraunhofer Institute, which operates Katwarn, a message from the district of Ahrweiler was issued as “Info” instead of “Warning” – which is why the system did not forward the message to Mowas. A problem that was not caused by technology, but by the responsible authorities who misjudged the situation.

It is already clear that not all mobile phones can receive the warnings

The Federal Ministry of the Interior in particular was criticized after the flood disaster. The FDP, at the time in the opposition, accused the ministry of serious omissions in civil protection. The picture presented itself of a significant “system failure” for which the then CSU Interior Minister Horst Seehofer bore personal responsibility, according to the FDP parliamentary group leader at the time, Michael Theurer. The SPD politician Karl Lauterbach said when civil protection one is just as badly prepared as with pandemic protection. And the then chairwoman of the Left Party, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, called on Seehofer to resign.

In response, after a visit to the flooded areas, Seehofer announced the introduction of Cell Broadcast: “The warning of the population must work, on all channels. If you are woken up at night, you have to know immediately what happened and how to behave The launch of cell broadcast will complement sirens, apps and broadcast.”

The start of Cell Broadcast was probably also delayed by complicated responsibilities. In addition to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the BBK and the Federal Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport, the Federal Network Agency – as well as mobile network operators, software and terminal device manufacturers – were involved in the introduction of the system and the connection to Mowas.

As a result of a change in the Telecommunications Act and the enactment of the Mobile Telecommunications Warning Ordinance in December 2021, mobile network providers operating in Germany were obliged to set up cell broadcast and have them ready for sending warnings. At the end of February 2022, the Federal Network Agency then issued the technical guideline.

Now let’s get started. But it is already clear that not all mobile phones will be able to receive the warnings. Apple iPhones, for example, only support the operating system versions iOS 16, 15.7.1 and 15.6.1. supports. Devices with the Google operating system Android are compatible from version 11.

In order for a message to arrive, the mobile phones must also be switched on – and the mobile network must be intact. Although the network often fails in the event of a disaster, the experts hope that the cell broadcast warnings will reach the people affected beforehand. To be on the safe side, the federal government is therefore also focusing on strengthening an even older communication channel – and is investing around 90 million euros in the Expansion of the siren network.



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