Today, many people can stay connected to information sources no matter where they are.

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In the past few years, it has become easy to stay connected to multiple sources of information at all times. With a cell phone, a laptop, a PDA and access to cellular and WiFi networks, you can find virtually all the information you need, when you need it. But sometimes people need to deliver information straight to you. If the message also needs to reach lots of other people, the process isn't as simple as dialing a number or typing in an e-mail address. This is where broadcast messaging comes in.

Broadcast messaging is a collection of techniques that people can use to deliver information to lots of recipients at once. For example, during a weather emergency, law enforcement officials can notify people of life-threatening conditions. Doctors can let patients know when the season's flu shots have arrived. Staff at an electronics store can inform customers that a highly anticipated game is available for pre-order. Sometimes, this information is convenient; other times, it's critical.

The goal of broadcast messaging is to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible. To do this, it has to take advantage of lots of different communication methods. Information can be in the form of recorded messages, e-mail, text messages or fax. It can travel over traditional or cellular phone networks or the Internet. Delivering the messages also requires a database full of contact information and hardware that can handle lots of data moving simultaneously.

In some cases, people may need to receive responses to their messages. For example, a dentist may send phone messages to patients with upcoming appointments. The patients may then need to press one button to confirm the appointment and another to cancel it. People who send urgent information may also need to know whether their messages arrived safely.

Because of all these requirements and complexities, broadcast messaging generally starts with a service provider. The provider has the equipment and staff needed to take care of all the details. A person or organization that wants to send messages -- we'll call this the sender -- works with the service provider to deliver information as efficiently as possible.

Providers' tools can vary significantly, but in general they have:

  • A server that can store and access databases full of contact information (some providers will install a server behind a client's firewall)
  • Hardware and software that can hold messages and direct them to the right recipients
  • Storage space for archiving messages and replies
  • Software that can analyze and record responses to messages
  • Encryption tools for use when handling sensitive information

Service plans can also differ substantially, much the way cell phone plans can have vastly different minute allotments and features. Some of the factors that can affect the price or availability of a service plan are:

  • Minutes used or messages sent for each billing period
  • Number of contacts in the contact database
  • Types of messages sent
  • Size and number of e-mail attachments
  • Size of the message archive

Once the sender selects a provider and a service plan, he uploads his contacts to the provider's database. Some providers can use existing contact lists, such as e-mail address books. Otherwise, senders may have to perform a data entry step to create the database before broadcasting can begin. If the sender represents a business that is trying to sell or market its products, he must also make sure his list does not conflict with national or local do-not-call lists.

People change their contact information relatively frequently, and not everyone wants to receive lots of broadcast alerts. To accommodate this, many providers allow recipients to change their information and preferences. Providers can include information on how to do this in their broadcasts. Senders can also create filters or multiple recipient lists to make sure people receive only the messages they're interested in.

We'll look at exactly what happens when the sender creates a message next.