‘A loud, siren-like sound’ – UK mobiles to receive government emergency alert test

Procurement data reveals government has signed the UK’s four network operators to five-year deals worth a cumulative £16m

Credit: Jack Sem/CC BY 2.0 – Image has been cropped

Some UK mobile users may receive a shock this afternoon when their phone emits “a loud siren-like sound” for 10 seconds as part of a test of the government’s planned emergency alert system.

Alerts will be sent out between 1pm and 2pm and, in addition to the noise, phones that receive an alert will also vibrate and read out the text: “This is a mobile network operator test of the Emergency Alerts service. You do not need to take any action. To find out more, search for gov.uk/alerts.”

In early 2018 the government first announced its desire to create a national alert system – through which citizens could be sent warnings about local or national incidents such as extreme weather, health emergencies, fires and accidents, or terror attacks.

Trials of such a system finally began this year, and two tests have already taken place in which people in Suffolk and Reading were sent alerts. It has not been announced if today’s test will be focused on one or more particular area.

PublicTechnology asked the Cabinet Office if more detail was available.

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“The aim of these tests is to determine the state of readiness of the cell tower network,” the department indicated. “Recipients will not need to act upon the information.”

Cellular network masts can be used to send the alerts to all devices in the surrounding area – unless phones are turned off or in airplane mode, or alerts have been disabled in the device’s settings.

To receive alerts, users must be connected to the 4G or 5G network and run on an operating system no earlier than iOS 14.5 or Android 11.

“Make sure your device has all the latest software updates,” the government advises on GOV.UK.

It adds: “The emergency services and the UK government do not need your phone number to send you an alert. You will get alerts based on your current location – not where you live or work. No one will collect or share data about you, your device or your location when you receive an alert.”

In a written parliamentary statement made shorlty ahead of the first test earlier this year, then paymaster general Penny Mordaunt said that, if the trials proved successful “the government will send out a National Welcome Message to the whole of the UK later this year”.

“Public testing will allow us to check the effectiveness of the system and ensure that members of the public are familiar with the new system and know what to do should they receive an alert in future”, she added. “There will be localised public information campaigns ahead of each test to inform people about the look and feel of the alert and what they should do when they receive it. There will also be a nationwide public information campaign ahead of the full national launch of this new capability.”

Mordaunt said that the government is working with charities and the third sector in a bid “to ensure that the needs of the elderly, vulnerable, young people and those with disabilities are fully considered as the new service is delivered”.

“The new service will be secure,” she told parlaiment. “Alerts can only be sent by authorised governmental and emergency services users.”

Support networks
Newly published procurement data reveals that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – which is working alongside the Cabinet Office to deliver the alerts system – recently signed five-year contracts for “mobile alerting services” with each of the UK’s four mobile networks.

The first such deal, signed with EE parent company BT, came into effect on 3 December 2020 and is worth £5.4m.

EE is the largest consumer brand in the market, holding a 22% share, according to data from Statista.

In second place is O2, with which the government signed a £4.86m contract on 10 December last year. O2 reportedly holds an 18% market share. 

Although, once other providers that ‘piggyback’ on the host network are considered, O2’s network is the most widely used in the UK, according to Statista. 

EE’s network supports other brands such as BT and Plusnet, while O2’s is used for mobile offerings from the likes of giffgaff, Tecso, TalkTalk and Sky. 

Between them, the two biggest networks support about two thirds of UK mobile users.

The third largest of the four UK networks is Vodafone, which has a 15% market share of its own, while also supporting brands such as Asda and Lebara.

Vodafone signed a £2.5m five-year contract with DCMS on 21 May.

The UK’s smallest network, Three, was awarded a £3.6m contract on 26 January.

Statista data shows that the company has a 10% market share. Its network is also used by Superdrug and iD Mobile – a brand owned by the Dixons Carphone group.

The contracts with the four network operators are worth a cumulative £15.9m.


Sam Trendall

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