'Massive damage' from Japan quake hits communications

Carriers set up text bulletin boards to connect travelers, relatives abroad

Japan's 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsumani it sent across the Pacific on Friday killed hundreds of people and disrupted communications while causing major damage to many buildings, roads and transportation systems.

"The quake has caused massive damage, and it's only now becoming apparent," reported Martyn Williams, bureau chief of IDG News Service based in Tokyo at 11 a.m. ET, several hours after the quake. In addition to huge fires in one town, and hundreds of dead bodies washed up on one beach, Williams reported widespread blackouts around Japan, crippling communications in the middle of the night.

With communications a precious commodity, he said people have lined up outside of public phones, which are programmed to take priority over networks during and after an earthquake. "Cell phones work, but service is sketchy," he said via e-mail. "Data is working better than voice."

While Japan is well-prepared for most quakes, "the crush [Friday night] of calls is a problem." He said the problems with communications were apparently caused by the huge demand of users, and not just because of infrastructure damage. Landline phones are doing better than wireless phones, Williams reported, noting that the Internet service in his office and home in Tokyo were functioning normally.

Early reports didn't indicate that wireless communications were completely crippled, although Japan's three largest mobile phone operators told Bloomberg that their services were disrupted across many regions in Japan. Those three carriers -- NTT DoCoMo, KDDI Corp. and Softbank Corp. -- described wireless systems as being in either poor or bad condition after the major quake.

Those three carriers and a fourth, NTT East, set up special disaster bulletin boards to post text messages for others to read on the Web.

NTT East allowed messages of up to 100 Japanese characters to be posted on a special Web site from areas within part of Japan though they can be read anywhere on the Web. Focus on Travel News said the messages could be seen by anyone who entered the writer's phone number.

The text bulletin boards were being used in addition to an array of social media sites on the Web.

Google also placed a warning on its main search page: "Tsunami Alert for New Zealand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, and others. Waves expected over the next few hours, caused by 8.9 earthquake in Japan."

Sendai tsunami
Sendai Airport is swept by a tsunami after an earthquake, in northeastern Japan. (Image: Reuters)

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 mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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