Cell phones to warn of earthquakes in Japan

TOKYO - Cell phones in Japan could soon provide a vital warning seconds ahead of a major earthquake.

The country's three largest cellular carriers, NTT DoCoMo Inc., KDDI Corp. and Softbank Mobile Corp., plan to develop a way to automatically funnel alerts to cell phones from a new government advance warning system, which went into operation last year.

The system, operated by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), ties together an extensive network of earthquake monitors on a high-speed network to provide data to a variety of users, including TV stations, manufacturers and cell phone operators.

The system provides warnings by measuring the primary waves (P-waves) from a quake, which are weak and fast-moving, to automatically predict when the slower and much more destructive secondary waves (S-waves) will arrive at a given location and how strong they will be.

The amount of warning varies and could be anything from a few seconds to up to a minute. People closer to the quake's epicenter get shorter warnings -- and in some cases might get none at all -- but researchers agree that the possibility of any warning is better than none.

The government data, which will provide the base for the cell phone system, has already been supplied to a number of groups, including manufacturers and hospitals.

The buildings are equipped with receivers to receive data from the government or service providers. The alarm system is designed to automatically stop heavy machinery or save PC data. In the future, it may also be able to automatically shut off gas valves. In the earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995, more people died from resulting fires than from the quake itself.

The cell phone companies hope to have a system launched in 2008.

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