VA Tech Incident Sparks Discussion Among Colleges, Mass Text-Message Alerts Useful

In the wake of the Virginia Tech attack, administrators at college campuses across the country have been calling on a handful of companies that offer what once seemed like a nonessential: the ability to blast text messages to thousands of people within minutes.

Leaders from Massachusetts public colleges and universities met Monday at the state Board of Higher Education on the need for an emergency text-message alert system at the state's universities and colleges. Boston University officials plan to meet with companies offering mass text message alerts this week. Boston start-up MobileSphere Ltd. was to disclose Tuesday that it would release its new emergency broadcast text message service in May, several weeks ahead of schedule, after a surge of interest from college administrators.

While emergency notifications such as campus-wide e-mails, Web page updates, and auto-dial phone messages are already widely used, administrators say the Virginia Tech tragedy has pushed them to look for a way to reach students anytime and anywhere.

"The advantage of text over e-mail is the students are constantly looking at cellphones," said Jim Shea, director of telecommunications at Boston University. "It's their mode of communication."

BU, like many other universities, had been exploring text messages as a potential communication channel with students for more routine purposes - such as reminders to register for classes. But the mass shooting last week highlighted the need for a means to reach students instantaneously.

"Up until last week, society and large organizations didn't think it was critical to have a solution like this," said Jill Aldort, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group.

The mass text-message alerts on the market or in development serve both emergency purposes and as campus news services. The business model varies: Some companies charge institutions fees; at least one offers a free service supported by advertising. But the basic idea is the same.

Students, faculty, and employees sign up and opt in for text alerts by providing their cellphone numbers. When an emergency situation occurs, administrators at the college can use a web-based service to send text messages to every phone on the list, reaching people who are sitting in class, walking around on campus, or in mid-commute.

Already, the services have been used in emergency situations. Mobile Campus Inc., based in Austin, Texas, is available on 11 campuses and has used its service to notify students and faculty of everything from a campus closure because of a severe ice storm this year at the University of Texas, Austin, to an emergency closing due to tropical storm Ernesto at University of Central Florida in 2006.

Omnilert LLC, a Leesburg, Va., company that delivers emergency text message alerts for colleges and businesses, already offers a text-messaging alert product, called e2Campus, to 30 universities. Florida A&M University used the service to alert students when a pit bull was loose on campus.

"Today's kids aren't listening to the radio; they're listening to their iPods. They're not watching TV; they're watching YouTube. For a school to think it can update everyone through traditional media is no longer going to work," said Bryan Crum, a spokesman for Omnilert, who said the company has received 600 e-mails and phone calls from universities and colleges over the past week.

While the emphasis now is on emergency services, the companies also turn the text message into a channel for reaching students who may glaze over when reading e-mails. Students may have the opportunity to opt in to receive sports scores, notification that grades have been posted online, or even advertising featuring local coupons.

The main barriers to text-messaging alerts thus far, the companies said, have been twofold: getting people to sign up for the service, and dealing with university administrators' concerns over the cost of receiving the messages - which are typically 15 cents per message if cellphone users do not subscribe to a text-messaging bundle package.

But last week's attack has erased many of those worries.

"Both of those are moot points at this time," said Gavin Macomber, executive vice president of marketing at MobileSphere. "After this disaster, we started receiving e-mails, phone calls. … They said, 'Well, we need to have a solution like this in place yesterday."'