Communication key to post-disaster survival

In Japan aftermath, portable radios work where cell phones can't

Parts of coastal Japan have been so badly hit by earthquakes and tsunamis in recent days that the only communication about other possible dangers such as radioactive fallout from damaged reactors has been one way, coming to residents through portable, battery-operated FM radios.

Without cellular or landline voice or data communications, residents in the most acute locations don't have the ability to reach out for help or to contact relatives. Receiving information on possible radioactive particles spread by damaged nuclear power plants or coming earthquakes or tsunamis has been difficult or impossible to obtain, according to various reports.

The problems faced in coastal areas such as hard-hit Minamisanriku, show how complex a widespread and serious earthquake/tsunami would be for the West Coast of the U.S., especially major cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, which are near fault zones.

"Look, it's impossible to prepare for anything of the scope and magnitude of the Japanese disaster," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "The Japanese disaster is so wide reaching that [communication] infrastructure was affected, not just the individual cell towers. Despite what the U.S. carriers say, I can guarantee there would be outages if we had the same scope as the Japanese disaster."

By comparison in the U.S., the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and even the widespread Hurricane Katrina devastation on the Gulf Coast were probably not as far-reaching in terms of communications impact as what is happening since the 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck Friday in Japan, experts said. For those U.S. disasters, regular communications took days and even weeks to restore, although all the major carriers quickly deployed portable cell towers and made other reparations.

"Fortunately, since 9/11, cellular carriers [in the U.S.] have increased their disaster readiness and recovery programs--reinforcing structures, increasing battery backups, adding capacity and redundancy," said Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner.

" But no network is bullet-proof and any country that experiences an earthquake to that magnitude, which Japan hadn't seen in 300 years, will have many extreme difficulties managing," Redman added.

A spokesman for AT&T, reached today, said he wouldn't comment on a hypothetical disaster in the U.S. and the carrier's readiness. Other carriers did not respond to requests to comment.

The dire communications situation in Japan was made clear Monday in an NBC-TV news report. A reporter provided a satellite phone to help American Canon Purdy, a teacher who was visiting a school where she had taught in coastal disaster-ravaged Minamisanriku, connect with her parents and sister in San Jose, Calif.

Purdy's sister used Twitter to reach out to reporter Ann Curry to help find her sister in the coastal town. Once Purdy had used NBC's satellite phone to reach her family, she explained that she had had no cell phone or other communications. Curry reported that she saw residents of that community relying on battery-operated portable radios to get broadcast reports on the condition of damaged nuclear reactors and of coming tsunamis. Sony was reported to have donated 30,000 radios to disaster victims.

On Friday, three of Japan's largest wireless communications providers -- NTT DoCoMo, KDDI Corp. and Softbank Corp.-- described their wireless systems as being in either poor or bad condition in many regions of the country. The carriers did not have information on which areas were without communications.

Gold said Japan's disasters in multiple areas show the value of two-way radios widely used by emergency responders. Satellite phones, while popularized in movies and on news reports, are expensive and not a viable option for average consumers, small businesses or many larger companies, Gold said. Various providers advertise satellite phones on the Web for $550 or more apiece, with per-minute fees ranging from 15 cents to $2.

Two-way radios are commonly used by the police and firefighters and even utility workers. The radios basically work point-to-point often without the need for a radio tower, Gold noted. So two utility trucks miles apart can communicate by two-way radio but would probably need a communication tower to reach a dispatcher in a central location miles away.

The difficulty with a two-way radio network is that a company or a partner must operate over licensed wireless spectrum with expensive equipment, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single handheld receiver. Some states and municipalities rely on their own private emergency networks, but even those are susceptible to physical damage from hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather damage.

Many federal agencies have satellite phones available to them, but the phones are less widely used in state and local governments. Satellite phones set up a wireless link with communications satellites above the Earth, which in turn downlink to towers or other locations with receivers on the ground.

"If you are a business, frankly, unless you have two-way radios, you are probably not going to be able to communicate with your workers if the communications network goes down," Gold said. "And even if the cellular network stays up, in a real disaster like Katrina, the networks are so overloaded that calls and data will be unreliable at best."

Gold said that even with a satellite phone, it might be hard to run a business for a few days after a disaster, just because other businesses would not be operating. The return on investment with a satellite phone is not great, unless the business operates in a critical area, Gold said. "Even if you had a satellite phone, what business would you be able to do anyway?" Gold reasoned. "There won't be any structures and power and your employees won't be able to drive in. FedEx could probably take the day off and not have customers complain."

Still, Redman, the Gartner analyst, said companies with mission critical needs must have multiple lines of communications. "The more important the need, the bigger the investment, which can include both terrestrial and satellite services," he said.

For individuals and even business personnel trying to stay in touch, having both outbound and inbound communications might be impossible in a widespread disaster.

Still, getting information from commercial and public TV and radio is still possible with battery- or crank-operated emergency radios, some which cost less than $50.

"Keeping a portable radio around for winter/summer storm power outages is something most people do" in New England, Gold noted.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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