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 the recent earthquake and tsunami that communication regarding other possible dangers, such as radioactive fallout from damaged nuclear reactors, has only been one-way, coming to residents through portable, battery-operated FM radios.

Without cellular or land line voice or data communications, residents in the most hard-hit locations don't have the ability to reach out for help or contact relatives. It has been difficult or impossible to receive information about aftershocks, further tsunami activity or the potential spread of radioactive particles from damaged nuclear power plants, according to various sources.

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 for big cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which are near fault lines.

"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."

In comparison to the damage caused by last week's 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, the devastation and disruption resulting from notable incidents in the U.S. -- including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region -- were probably not as far-reaching, especially in terms of impact on the communications infrastructure, experts said. Regular communications did take days or even weeks to fully restore after those U.S. disasters, but all the major carriers quickly deployed portable cell towers and were able to make other immediate repairs.

"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 bulletproof, and any country that experiences an earthquake of that magnitude, which Japan hadn't seen in 300 years, will have many extreme difficulties managing," Redman added.

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

The dire state of the communications infrastructure in Japan was evident in a Monday NBC-TV news report, in which 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 the disasters in multiple areas of Japan show the value of the 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 at prices of $550 apiece or more, with per-minute fees ranging from 15 cents to $2.

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