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Communication key to post-disaster survival

Matt Hamblen | March 14, 2011
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.

FRAMINGHAM, 14 MARCH 2011 - 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 (IT).

" 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.

 

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