Earthquake alerts coming to Japan

05 Sep 2007

While Japan's mobile phones service is renowned for its sophistication as well as frills, later this year carriers are taking service to a new level with the introduction of early-warning earthquake alerts to mobile handsets. Operators are planning to release handsets supporting the service by the end of the year.

The move will follow the nationwide October 1 launch by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) of its earthquake early warning system, which will give around 10 seconds advance notice of major earthquakes. The JMA believes that with 10 seconds warning people can switch off the gas and move to cover, thus reducing loss of life and injuries.

NTT DoCoMo will use cell broadcasting while KDDI will use the cdma2000 equivalent SMS broadcasting. A Softbank spokesperson said the company has not yet decided which technology to deploy.

Both cell and SMS broadcasting are 3GPP2 standard technologies but neither has been used in Japan, although Softbank is said to have been studying the possibility of working with Qualcomm to offer cell-broadcasting services as part of its quest to offer unique services.

In the first stage, DoCoMo has a target of passing the information to subscribers in the expected earthquake zone within 10 seconds of receiving the warning from JMA. 'We expect this system will help reduce the loss of life and injuries in the case of a major earthquake because most people always carry their mobile phones and can get the information instantly,' said NTT DoCoMo spokesperson Shinya Yokota.

TV and radio stations, however, will broadcast warnings within one second of receiving them and sirens in the new digital rural network being rolled out will also go off within one second. 'Ten seconds is slow,' insisted a JMA official.

Carriers no doubt face a difficult technological challenge to match the speed of the communication of those media.

Up to now the role of mobile communications and the activities of carriers has focused 100% on swift post-disaster response efforts. The earthquake in Niigata on July 16 was a timely reminder of the importance of mobile communications support at such times and its vulnerability.

DoCoMo lost 16 base stations for two days while KDDI reported 17 of its base stations were put out of action.

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