Germany: Further step towards the introduction of „Cell Broadcast“

So far, German authorities can only notify mobile phones of an impending disaster if their owners have registered beforehand. Soon it will be possible to warn all phones within a certain radius. It is questionable who will decide whether to send such a message.

The German government is another step closer to introducing the „Cell Broadcast“ warning system. Yesterday, the Federal Cabinet agreed on a „formulation aid“ to amend the Telecommunications Act (TKG). If it is passed by the Bundestag, all mobile phones that are logged into a certain mobile phone cell can be warned of an impending event with a text message. The system is not tied to specific phone numbers, but the reception of „cell broadcast“ messages must be activated manually on some mobile phones.

The standard of „Cell Broadcast“ is defined by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), in which worldwide standardisation bodies have joined forces. Accordingly, the service, which was initially only available in GSM networks, can now also be used with LTE and 5G. „Cell Broadcast“ messages can only comprise a maximum of 93 characters. The latest specification extends this to 1,395 characters by sending a total of 15 continuous messages of 93 characters. In addition, the mobile phone emits an alarm tone and vibrates even if it is muted.

Receiving warnings so far only voluntary

In May, the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) had already commissioned a feasibility study on the introduction of „Cell Broadcast“, the result of which should be available this month. According to the magazine, the Federal Ministry of Economics has so far acted as a „brakeman“ in this regard. However, the recent flood disaster in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate has ensured that the federal government now wants to get the technology off the ground quickly.

The BBK is currently working out requirements for such a system with the mobile network operators. Subsequently, the Federal Network Agency is to draw up a corresponding technical guideline. Among other things, the companies must set up an interface in their networks. In less than a year, the technology should finally be ready for take-off.

Up to now, German authorities have only warned of impending events after voluntary registration. The BBK operates the information and messaging app „NINA“, which is said to have 10 million users. Several federal states as well as federal authorities also operate the app „Katwarn“, developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS), which, in addition to disaster warnings, also informs about bomb discoveries and other events. If desired, such a warning can also be sent by mail or SMS. In Germany, the system is said to have around 3.8 million users.

„Katwarn“ is marketed in the European Union as „EUWARN“, but the system, symbolically launched by former EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger on 11 September 2019, is hardly widespread so far.

EU directive from 2018

Only a small part of the population is reached with the apps, and in addition, the messages are not fundamentally location-based. In order to be able to distribute population warnings regionally on as many channels as possible, the EU member states had agreed in 2018 to introduce a low-threshold warning system. Details of this are laid down in the Directive for a „European Code of Electronic Communications“ (EECC).

It is up to the member states to decide which alert system to use. One of the requirements, however, is that end-users do not have to register with authorities or companies in order to receive a notification.

The EU Code regulates, among other things, who should receive a disaster warning. Accordingly, all persons who are in the geographical areas potentially affected by the threat or spread of major emergencies and disasters during the period in question are considered to be necessarily affected. These areas are to be determined by the competent authorities.

With the now accelerated introduction of „Cell Broadcast“, the German government is thus ultimately only implementing the EECC Directive. On 21 June 2022, the deadline ends by which all member states must have introduced such an alert system.

Warnings also by police?

According to the EU directive, the transmission of public warnings must be anonymous for the recipients, i.e. the authorities should not be able to find out who is receiving the message. The service should also be free of charge for the end user. However, it is possible that the network providers or the operators of base stations – similar to the sending of technically trivial SMS – charge for the distributed messages.

In Germany, however, this is supposed to be free of cost. Last week, the Federal Ministry of the Interior had stated in its answer to a parliamentary question that, as things stand, the German mobile network operators do not want to charge any licence fees for the operation of “ Cell Broadcast“.

Finally, the EU Directive stipulates that the EU Commission should examine the establishment of a Union-wide public alert system. This could even replace the national systems in the member states. Then the competent authorities could also warn of „major emergencies“ in different member states. The wording leaves open whether these could also be police notifications, for example in the case of an assault.

Some police forces in EU member states and in the Schengen state of Switzerland have also introduced „predictive policing“ apps that announce a possible imminent burglary. „KatWarn“, which the EU Commission wants to become the EU standard in the future, already integrates such messages in the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example. However, these are based on statistical forecasts and not on facts.

Image: With „EUWARN“, former EU Commissioner Oettinger wanted to establish an EU-wide warning system that would report not only disasters but also „major emergencies“ (Fraunhofer FOKUS).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.