April 20, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Cell phone becomes new town crier

Universities and some cities are starting to recognize cell phones as efficient tools for protecting and connecting students and citizens.

More than 233 million people in the U.S. subscribe to a cell phone service, and many of those people view their cell phones as the one item they do not leave the house without. University officials and community leaders are just now starting to see how these staples of 21st century society can be turned into tools to keep citizens and students better informed about their community and better protected from harm.

"Our vision is to open the cellular phone network up so that communities can better connect with people living in those areas," said Rodger Desai, president and CEO of Rave Wireless, a company that develops software applications for universities to send cell phone communications to students. "Colleges are really a microcosm of the world. This technology can be used in any community to inform people of emergencies or just provide local updates."

The tragedy this week at Virginia Tech, where 33 students and professors lost their lives in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, has highlighted how something as simple as a text message alert could have potentially saved lives.

Officials at the school have been criticized in the aftermath of the tragedy for not alerting students of the situation sooner. Students have reported they did not receive e-mails regarding the situation on campus until two hours after the first shooting in one of the dormitories.

Alerts could save lives
Much of the delay in alerting students likely falls in the hands of authorities, who were assessing the situation on campus, and not the technology itself. But some experts say that e-mail is not the best form of communication for such critical alerts. They suggest SMS text messaging as a more effective way of alerting students.

"Text messaging alerts would have been an excellent way to inform students on the Virginia Tech campus that there was a security issue," said Alison Kiss, program director for Security on Campus, a not-for-profit group that promotes collegiate security. "Virtually every college student today has a cell phone with them at all times. It's just a much more effective way of communicating an urgent message than leaving it to e-mail, which people may not check all the time."

Several companies, such as E2Campus and Rave Wireless, offer text messaging solutions that colleges can use to send out mass SMS alerts. Of the 3,000 universities and colleges in the United States, 70 of them are already using Rave's solution, including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and Park University in Parkville, Mo., Desai said.

Earlier in the year, Virginia Tech officials had considered deploying an emergency cell phone text-messaging system after an accused murderer was found running loose on the campus, according to news reports. But the school has not deployed such an alert system.

According to a recent study from Forrester Research, roughly 35 percent of the entire mobile phone subscriber population in the U.S. has used text messaging, a seemingly simple and cheap way to communicate important information to students on campus or even people within communities. Westchester County in New York already sends residents text message alerts, in addition to e-mails, in cases of emergency.

Beyond text messaging
But text message alerts are only one cell phone application that universities and communities can exploit to keep students and residents informed. Rave Wireless also sells a comprehensive solution called Rave Guardian that combines, text message alerts and GPS tracking services to help turn students' cell phones into personal alarm devices that can be used in a crisis.

Students can opt-in to a service with their school to give campus security the ability to locate them in the event of an emergency through a GPS-enabled handset, which receives satellite signals to pinpoint location. Since the FCC now requires all mobile operators to provide location information for E911 emergency purposes, most new phones sold in the U.S. already have this capability built in.

Rave has also built software that can be integrated into some cell phones that allows students on campuses where the Rave Guardian system is deployed to press a panic button that connects them directly to campus security if they feel they are in danger. Students can even send photos directly to campus security when they hit the panic button.

CONTINUED: Cell phone security…
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It looks nice, but...
the problem is that most teachers and professors ask students to TURN OFF the cell during class. That could be solve by using a PA system.

Also, since SMS does not provide with a special method to display an Alert message, a early warning could be interpreted as just another message. New cell phones could be upgraded with software that identifies certain flag and put the cell phone in an Alert mode (similar to the EAS).

Finally, no everyone can afford a cell phone in some areas, as basic plans are usually $30 and up. Universities can provide with low cost plans and support phone recycle programs: even a simple WiFi device capable of display an alert message, or even a pager (good old trusty pager) could be provided free to the new students to be returned when graduated.
Posted by blueshore (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Best Option Available Today
Most students turn off their ringer and use the vibrate mode almost exclusively. They don't actually TURN OFF the phone itself.

So they would get the message and it would indicate who it was from w/o having to read it just like any other message sent today.

Until something better comes along, THIS IS THE WAY TO GO!
Posted by bkblair (15 comments )
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Fair Points
BUT the issues can be solved. Push technology can push out a warning. Tornado, or Evacuation.

Cell phones may not be univesal but they are as close to it as exists now.

Even if you don't have one someone next to you does.

It's the right idea. The wireless folks can propose how to make it happen or they can have it dictated to them by the government.

Either works for me.
Posted by Renegade Knight (13748 comments )
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West Chester County New York
Is actually Westchester county New York.

Love the idea though. I remember being in college(last year.....) hoping to get class cancellation notices quicker. This problem would obviously be solved if all had broadband access with email phones but that would have to wait for another couple of years to be standardized. one thing is that this technology may become obsolete one broadband becomes cheaper and PDA phones become standardized.
Posted by shinsccr8 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
thanks, will fix
we appreciate your tip.
Posted by meyersm (51 comments )
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