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Japan Looks to Taiwan to Disaster-Proof Telecom

Software and wireless experience could help realize a wireless service that bounces back

3 min read
A mobile phone left in the rubble in Yamada, Japan after the 11 March 2011 earthquake
Photo: Francois Lochon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

A mobile phone left in the rubble in Yamada, JapanLines Down: A mobile phone left in the rubble in Yamada, Japan after the 11 March 2011 earthquake was just one sign of how hard the country's telecommunications systems were hit.Photo: Francois Lochon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

In the shadow of the catastrophic Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, Japanese information and communication technologies experts have been working on developing technology that might lead to communications systems that are, in their words, “robust, resilient, and dependable” in disasters and emergencies.

According to Japanese researchers, vulnerable communication networks in Japan left many victims and emergency responders in digital isolation for several days following the earthquake. Mobile-call volume was 50 to 60 times as high as usual, forcing operators to restrict traffic by 70 to 95 percent. In addition, base stations were damaged and backhaul cables were cut. Even if those assets had remained intact, they couldn’t function normally for long because blackouts and road damage made it impossible to recharge batteries or refuel of emergency power generators.

There has been some progress on that last front, points out Fumiyuki Adachi, professor of electrical and communication engineering at Tohoku University. His mobile-phone signals were gone just 2 hours after the earthquake, he says, even though the nearby base station just outside the Tohoku University campus appeared intact. “In the past, the batteries used as backup power supplies can only last 2 hours. Now they’ve been replaced by more powerful ones, which can sustain a base station for 24 hours,” Adachi says.

Adachi is part of a project in Japan called the multilayered communications network. [PDF] Tohoku University, KDDI R&D Laboratories, KDDI Corporation, OKI Electric Industry, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, and Yokosuka Research Park are all involved in this government-funded project, which seeks to build a communications infrastructure that works well during disasters. Their idea of a reliable disaster-resilient multilayered communication network would consist of a combination of cellular and regional networks such as WiMax, Wi-Fi, and satellite networks.

In late January, researchers on the project went to Taiwan hoping to learn something from the country’s R&D capacity in disaster-related IT and communications.

“Like Japan, Taiwan suffers from natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons,” Adachi says. “Taiwan has been able to provide communication services for disasters, such as broadcasting the monitoring situation to the public and sending update information to rescuers. We hope to include Taiwan’s experience to our project.”

According to Huann-shiuh Shy, deputy executive secretary of the Committee of Communications Industry Development of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Taiwan tech sector has a lot to contribute. For example, to ensure communications during disasters, the Japanese researchers are considering installing Wi-Fi stations to replace damaged cables connecting base stations. “Taiwanese firms might offer ideal solutions, such as producing affordable Wi-Fi stations fitting their systems,” Shy says.

Another idea is to use WiMax technology to build a temporary communication system at the scene of a disaster, Shy says. Taiwan has actually done that successfully several times already—for example, using police cars as the WiMax base stations at a demonstration or concert.

According to Shy, Taiwan can also contribute its innovation in software designed specifically for emergency response and recovery. For example, the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) has spent years developing an open standard for using SMS to exchange location-based information. The standard, called Open GeoSMS and approved by the Open Geospatial Consortium, has been effective in facilitating humanitarian coordination and disaster relief.

According to Kuo-Yu “Slayer” Chuang, a manager of ITRI’s Information and Communications Research Laboratories, the invention makes it easy to let others know where you are and what resources you need. That’s especially useful to relief groups, he says. 

In 2012, ITRI researchers designed mobile apps for Android and iOS smartphones. These were used by several Taiwanese humanitarian relief organizations, such as the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, Dharma Drum Mountain, and Taiwan’s Red Cross Society to carry out disaster relief work in Taiwan and other countries, including China, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe. Now Chuang’s team aims to build an open-application programming interface software platform based on ITRI’s Open GeoSMS so developers can create apps that use it.

“With a very simple user interface, information about incident reports and resource request can be clearly read,” Chuang says, adding that the information could be shared by many groups to avoid repeat visits to disaster areas.

According to Chuang, the application of ITRI’s Open GeoSMS will be introduced in Japan at a symposium in March, at Tohoku University, and the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation has expressed interest in the system.

About the Author

Yu-Tzu Chiu is a Taipei correspondent for Bloomberg BNA. She has chronicled Taiwan’s tech policies for IEEE Spectrum since 2000. In the December 2012 issue, she reported on the invention of a flash memory that can survive 100 million write-erase cycles.

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