Massive Japan Quake/Tsunami Hobbles Mobile Voice, But Data Holds Fast

Tsunami hits Japan after earthquake

After a major disaster like the 8.9 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last night, the first thing virtually everyone shaken by the event wants to do is send out a message or place a call letting loved ones know they’re fine. How did mobile networks in Japan, one of the world’s most mobile societies, hold up during the tragic and hectic day?

No network appeared unaffected, according to reports out of Japan, with slowdowns, disruptions, and outages widespread across the nation, especially in northern Japan where the tsunami destroyed entire villages and in the populated center of Tokyo. The problems are obvious: severe congestion as millions of people flocked to voice and data services within minutes of each other, downed cellular towers and power lines in key locations, and disruptions to the back-end data centers that make the whole system run.

NTT DoCoMo (NYSE: DCM), the nation’s leading wireless carrier, reported disruptions in service throughout much of the day, and was even forced to restrict the number of voice calls that could be made across its network as night fell in Japan to address congestion issues. Softbank, another major carrier, was also affected, according to reports out of Japan from Bloomberg.

Interestingly, DoCoMo did say that data connections were not affected, meaning that many could have turned to Web access in order to send out e-mails or updates to social-networking services in order to communicate with families and friends. IDG News Service in Tokyo also reported that regular Internet connections seemed unaffected by the quake, tsunami, and resulting network congestion.

The three leading mobile carriers–DoCoMo, KDDI, and Softbank–all set up the text-message equivalent of bulletin boards where subscribers could send text messages that were then placed on a Web page and accessible to anyone who has the texter’s phone number.

As people rely more and more on mobile phones and data connections in their day-to-day lives, the importance of those connections in times of crisis grows even larger. As more reports come in we’ll be able to get a better sense of how well Japan’s mobile network performed under one of the worst strains it has likely ever seen, and whether or not lessons can be taken from the experience in order to help other network operators and software developers build services that can cope with such demands.

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