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April 18, 2007

Interview with Rodger Desai, President & CEO of Rave Wireless

Rave_logo This Q&A paraphrases a discussion I had by phone with Rodger Desai of Rave Wireless earlier this evening about SMS alert and communications systems for academic campuses.

With your SMS alert system what happens when the cell service is overwhelmed?

We leverage people's existing phones and it depends upon arrangement with carriers on how to prioritize messages. We don't use an e-mail gateway like some people use. We use a short code, and there is redundancy on the binds so that we go across several aggregators. The coverage on campuses is somewhat incidental.

The more enhanced Rave product has coverage capacity guarantees. The carrier builds out their coverage capacity for campuses. That ensures coverage everywhere on campus. With this, you get some additional applications such as with the Rave Guardian service. One is a panic button which can transmit their GPS coordinates anywhere around the country, as well as their picture, their profile, as well as their family information.

The text messaging thing is very basic. Most of our effort is in the larger solution. Most campuses need to build a relationship with a carrier since they are moving away from landlines, especially with a mobile student body. We provide a platform and a set of applications for GPS and a contractual relationship with a carrier like Sprint or Verizon. They will actually build the needed coverage capacity and will basically sign a service level agreement.

At Park University, Rave has partnered with Sprint. In this case, Sprint will guarantee that Rave Wireless' text alerts will have priority.

What does it take to maintain this system in terms of adding new student's phone numbers or changing numbers for those students who switch carriers?

In the case of broadcast alerts, we collect the cell phone numbers from a sort of social networking site. That's worked out pretty well.

In the case where the school does a complete Rave solution, they're actually assigned numbers and the students can port their own numbers. For the Univ. of Maryland, 75% of the incoming class will have a phone from us and will have all the software preloaded and half of those students port their existing cell phone numbers over.

At the University of San Francisco it's reported that 5,000 out of 45,000 students have signed up for their alert system. Is there a problem getting students to register? Is there some minimum number needed to ensure that the alert system is effective?

It really hasn't been an issue, the important thing is that you build trust. Rave won't be around if we abused those numbers.

There are companies that are doing silly things such as sending you coupons. On Rave, there's nothing that a student wouldn't get that they didn't opt in for. In addition to broadcast alerts you can get homework assignment messages. Rave's view is that advertising should make the product better. There's enough money in the cell phone business, people spend thousands of dollars in the phones and plans so Rave doesn't have any advertising.

What about the students who can't afford cell phones?

Over 90% of students come in with a phone. Everything that Rave does is billed to the bursar account of the student, so it can be subsidized with financial aid. We never had a student who couldn't afford it who didn't get one.

Is it possible for someone to spoof the system--send out false alerts?

For the broadcast alert, you have to be an administer to log in.

Are there any case studies where such a system was effective in saving a student?

We've been doing this the longest, for 2.5 years. Montclair State which is the second largest university in New Jersey, has had this up and running for 2 years, and they haven't had a major issue. They've have had school closings due to power outage issues and floods, so classes got canceled. In terms of broadcast messages, they've probably sent 10-15 campus-wide, in terms of individual messages, that probably happens every day. A class gets canceled or a homework assignment gets changed.

Would an administrator be reluctant to broadcast an alert in fear that a panic might ensure?

They do make a decision in what they want to do, it's just that they don't have a lot of tools to disseminate the information, so they'll rely on e-mail which much students don't check very often. It's really not any change in the way that they do things. Our notion is the more information that you can give a community, the better the decisions that they'll make. With the VTech incident, there were students who were still hiding at 2 pm, some of whom had health issues, and didn't know it was over. There were people walking toward the second shooting not realizing what was going on. Yesterday, a lot of our schools tested their systems, and the overwhelming response from the students was that we have to have something right in our hands.

What if the perpetrator is a student, and therefore also notified? Is this the wrong person to receive an alert?

It may make the perpetrator think they're on to me, I'd better run.

This is only step one, you can actually send a poll out saying "Are you OK?" with Rave Guardian. At the Univ. of Vermont, a woman went to a party on Friday night, didn't show up for her parents' Saturday night dinner. With Guardian you can transmit GPS data from the cell phone every 3 minutes, if the panic button is used or the timer is not deactivated after a certain time. These tools require a commitment for both sides, one from the university and one from the students.

Who is liable if a student is in trouble and the system fails?

The liability really falls more on the carriers more than us, but that's why Rave put a lot of time and money into redundancy. The places where it typically fails is in the SMS aggregators, because they're all kind of small companies, and in coverage. And, we've solved both those issues by working with several aggregators, if one fails, we go to the next, and the second is the coverage capacity provided by the carrier. We get the coverage built out for free on campus. Any other points of failure are just the carrier being down, and that really doesn't happen. These points of failure are where we put most of our capital.

Most of the towers are designed so that they can't handle if everyone is calling at the same time. We get capacity level agreements, so that everyone can make phone calls at the same time.

How many SMS messages can you send out per minute?

Most companies will take 1/2 hour to sent out 10,000 messages, we can send 25,000 messages in less than 5 minutes. Another factor is that you have to make sure than you can complete a sequence of messages. Such as "Avoid the North Campus," and then half an hour later send, "Head to the North Campus," any significant delay will cause mass confusion.

Can you adequately relate what's going on in 160 characters?

People who put the entire Rave system in place are not limited to text messages, you have software on the phone, you can send a video, an audio file, or a map via a Java client. You're not limited by character count by any means.

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