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Ben Charny

Staff Writer, CNET

At least five countries have begun developing an alert system using cell phone text messages, a response to the catastrophic Asian tsunami that exposed flaws in present-day early warning schemes.

Discussions among officials in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, which were hard hit by the killer tsunami, along with France, have begun in just the last few days, according to a source familiar with the plans.

The goal is to supplement older systems that proved little help for nations in the path of the immense waves in late December that have so far killed more than 140,000 people in 11 countries. Already emerging from the wreckage are tales of emergency workers and stricken residents using SMS (short message service) to aid in rescue efforts or keep in touch with loved ones. Sri Lankan officials have already used text messages to distribute information on how to get aid.

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“We hope to have something tangible in place by mid-April,” said Greg Wilfahrt, executive vice president and co-founder of SMS.AC, a wireless e-mail provider that has relationships with carriers in 170 nations. The company has offered its infrastructure and carrier connections to become the basis of the SMS warning system. SMS.AC is also coordinating the talks between the various nations.

Using SMS as an early warning system makes sense in theory, though it would be immensely difficult to carry out, according to analysts. Because cell phone owners typically carry their handsets with them, cell phones could be a much more suitable means of relaying information instantly to those in harm’s way. Existing warning systems funnel warnings through various intermediaries and rely on televisions or radios.

Yankee Group analyst John Jackson said the effort could have an enormous upside, given that most phones now are capable of sending and receiving text messages. However, coordination could be a big headache. “It could mitigate the capital expense of setting up sirens and other bits of early warning systems,” he said. “But one of the major problems could be who’s going to assure that message actually gets through?”

There is precedent for such a system. Both Hong Kong and the Netherlands already incorporate SMS into their own emergency systems. To pull it off on a worldwide scale, all that’s really needed is a database of telephone numbers to send messages to. But such efforts are gigantic and could take months to implement just on a regional scale.

Many nations were caught unprepared for the tsunami, especially those that had not signed onto the existing tsunami early warning system. Also, a report published by the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation last week questioned whether tsunami early warning systems are being given enough attention.

But the SMS effort raises some questions. As most wireless dialers are well-aware, cell phone coverage is spotty at best, and only gets worse when infrastructure is damaged. Roaming agreements, however, may help improve the system’s range.

Also, while nearly a third of the planet owns a cell phone, there are still billions of people who do not, which would leave them out of the loop with this system.