Whether it’s flooding or a major fire, the cell broadcast warning system can alert mobile phone users in emergencies. An app does not have to be installed for this. Even those who have muted their device will be warned.

It’s a shrill tone that could save lives: According to mobile phone network operators, the Cell Broadcast warning system has been available nationwide since today. Vodafone, Telefónica (O2) and Deutsche Telekom said they were ready. “In an emergency, no other system can reach so many people in a risk area,” said Markus Haas, head of Telefónica Germany.

The Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) announced that “another important step towards strengthening civil protection had been taken”. With cell broadcast, cell phones receive a warning text and there is a loud tone. This is to indicate impending disasters.

Introduction due to the storm disaster in NRW

With the system, messages like radio signals are sent to all compatible devices that are logged into a radio cell – hence the name “Cell Broadcast”. For example, there is a warning of a major fire or flooding. The reason for the introduction of cell broadcast in Germany was the storm disaster in NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate in summer 2021 with more than 180 deaths. The system has long been used in other EU countries.

It is a supplement to other warning channels, for example radio announcements or sirens on buildings. Cell Broadcast doesn’t require an app to be installed like Nina or Katwarn’s alerts do.

What is helpful about Cell Broadcast is that a mobile phone shrills loudly even when it is on mute. This significantly reduces the likelihood of someone simply not noticing the warning of impending disaster. On the other hand, if the mobile phone is in flight mode – for example when someone is sleeping and does not want to be disturbed – it remains silent and does not receive a message because it is not on the network at this time. It would be better to use the sleep mode, in which calls and chat messages are blocked, but the cell phone is connected to the network and can therefore be reached by cell broadcast.

Positive reviews of the system

The network operators were obliged to implement the warning system by today and to enable it everywhere in Germany – according to their own statements, they have now met this deadline. The system was tested during a nationwide warning day in early December. Nevertheless, the telecommunications companies rated the test as successful overall.

This year, the network operators carried out further tests. Results were collected and optimizations were made, said a Telekom spokesman. The operating costs are reimbursed to the operators by the state. The warnings are triggered by the state authorities responsible for disasters.

The NRW consumer advice center rates cell broadcast in Germany as a “positive extension of the existing disaster warning system”. It is important to expand the circle of people who are to be reached as comprehensively as possible, said consumer advocate Felix Flosbach. “In the case of digital solutions, particular attention must be paid to wide availability for a large number of devices.”

Urgent appeal from Vodafone

The fact is that by no means all mobile phones that are logged into a radio cell can be reached. Older models, which mainly seniors still have with them, are left out, only smartphones are meant. And only if they have new software updates. According to Vodafone, around three quarters of mobile devices are able to receive cell broadcast. Conversely, this means: A quarter falls through the cracks. Added to this is the fact that an estimated four percent of people in Germany do not have a mobile phone.

It is important that cell phone users stay up to date with the operating system. Vodafone has issued an “urgent appeal” on this: “If smartphone users do not yet have the latest versions of these operating systems on their end devices, they should install a corresponding software update.”

In addition, Vodafone has asked device manufacturers to improve the way alerts are saved and redisplayed. On the December warning day, some consumers initially clicked away from the message and later found it difficult to find it again when they wanted to read it. The manufacturers have promised to improve this by making adjustments in the menu, according to Vodafone.

Other EU countries have been using the system for a long time

Politicians also rate the topic positively. “Cell broadcast brings a large additional benefit at low cost,” said the Greens member of the Bundestag Maik Außendorf. However, he complains that the system has only now been introduced in Germany. “Other EU countries were much quicker: cell broadcast should have been implemented much earlier in Germany.” It is important that the system is secure against misuse. “Should the system be hacked and a foreign power send misleading messages, this could destabilize Germany in crisis situations.” Fortunately, such abuse is currently not foreseeable.