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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.

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 Japan's disasters in multiple areas show the value of 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 for $550 or more apiece, with per-minute fees ranging from 15 cents to $2.

Two-way radios are commonly used by the police and firefighters and even utility workers. The radios basically work point-to-point often without the need for a radio tower, Gold noted. So two utility trucks miles apart can communicate by two-way radio but would probably need a communication tower to reach a dispatcher in a central location miles away.

The difficulty with a two-way radio network is that a company or a partner must operate over licensed wireless spectrum with expensive equipment, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single handheld receiver. Some states and municipalities rely on their own private emergency networks, but even those are susceptible to physical damage from hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather damage.

Many federal agencies have satellite phones available to them, but the phones are less widely used in state and local governments. Satellite phones set up a wireless link with communications satellites above the Earth, which in turn downlink to towers or other locations with receivers on the ground.

"If you are a business, frankly, unless you have two-way radios, you are probably not going to be able to communicate with your workers if the communications network goes down," Gold said. "And even if the cellular network stays up, in a real disaster like Katrina, the networks are so overloaded that calls and data will be unreliable at best."


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