Phones come in handy in a crisis, as long as they work, and Japan is striving to build networks that work in the most extreme of conditions.
Japan built its burgeoning “disaster-proof” mobile network to withstand natural disasters by quickly diverting traffic from compromised stations and preventing network overload. The country, whose interest in improving its networks, stems from the 2011 tsunami, which knocked out communication when people desperately needed it.
As a result, Telecom companies NTT Docomo and KDDI are spearheading projects, and the Japanese government is pushing them to cooperate and get the networks up and running as soon as possible.
In disasters, mobile service is often more reliable than landlines, and more accessible to people caught away from home during an emergency. During the Japanese tsunami, as well as the tornadoes in the U.S. last summer and a bevy of other crisis incidents, people relied on cell service and social media to communicate with family, friends and rescue teams.
Japan, prone to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes, will benefit from the sturdier emergency network, and its actions may inspire other nations to concentrate on making emergency communication more reliable.
A disaster-proof system will be more difficult to create in the U.S. The fiercely-competitive relationships between carriers hinders similar projects and the government is less likely to demand network-building cooperation. In addition, the spectrum squeeze makes it difficult for U.S. carriers to devote bandwidth to establishing comprehensive re-routing systems.
For example, LightSquared’s proposed merger with Sprint would have given Sprint access to more satellite-based network resources, but U.S. regulators blocked the deal due to potential interferences with GPS systems. Meanwhile, the FAA warned that GPS disturbance may actually decrease safety, by interfering with aviation signals, even though LightSquared insisted it could fix the interference issues and still run its towers.
At the same time, unless the government places primacy on letting carriers use such satellites to bolster their networks, the U.S. will have trouble carrying out a project along the same lines as Japan and keeping citizens in contact during emergencies.
AT&T introduced a series of “Remote Mobility Zone” kits, which connects cell service with satellites in case of emergency, but these cost upwards of $15,000, making them too expensive for most consumers.
The U.S., which experiences devastating hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, needs a foolproof communication system for people just as much as Japan.
Researchers in the U.S. developed a mobile app that uses Bluetooth short-range radio technology to reroute data during service interruptions, but that method wouldn’t be as widespread as a carrier-backed emergency system.
The U.S. is developing emergency mobile services, such as a disaster response text alert system, but if the infrastructure to transmit these messages is damaged, systems like these are useless.
Given the climate in Congress and among carriers in the U.S., AT&T, Verizon and other major carriers are unlikely to work together on a project on same scale as in Japan. But, if a widescale natural disaster strikes, and people are left without service, similar to Hurricane Katrina, regulators and carriers will face criticism as to why they didn’t harness the technologies available in other countries, such as Japan.