WW-129 -- NTT DoCoMo Ramps Up Disaster Response

J@pan Inc presents the Wireless Watch Newsletter:


Commentary on Japan's Wireless World

Wireless Watch Newsletter
Issue No. 129
Monday, May 17, 2004

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@@ Viewpoint: NTT DoCoMo Ramps Up Disaster Response

[*This week we proudly introduce our new Wireless Watch co-contributor,
US-based tech-journalist and TV commentator Laura Burstein
(http://www.lauraburstein.com/). Laura will be offering her insights
and analyses alongside those of our principal contributor, Arjen
van Blokland, whose work will continue to appear here.]

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@@ Viewpoint: NTT DoCoMo Ramps Up Disaster Response

Mobile devices have, for most of us, become essential communications
lifelines. But when disaster strikes, many can find our modern-day
security blankets rendered useless by too much network congestion.

It was therefore a relief to those of us who feel naked without our
wireless phones when NTT DoCoMo recently announced it would manage its
voice and data packets separately to ease network congestion in case
of a large-scale emergency.

Presently, the only way for wireless carriers to manage unusually heavy
mobile call volume is by restricting the number of calls that can go
through. And while Japanese law requires communications access to
emergency workers such as firefighters, police,and certain government
officials, many urgent calls and messages could still be blocked during
a crisis.

For example, millions of people were at a loss trying to contact friends
and loved ones during the 7.0 Sanriku Minami earthquake in May 2003.
DoCoMo's traffic alone was 30 times the norm, forcing the service
provider to restrict more than 87 percent of its subscribers' outgoing
communications immediately following the disaster.

The move to split DoCoMo's network is part of a broader disaster
response initiative by the company that includes a disaster message
service (which can be reached by dialing 171) and the i-mode Disaster
Message Board service. Launched in January of this year, the message
board service allows i-mode subscribers to send SMS messages to a
dedicated i-mode site. Friends and family can then access the boards
to find out the status of their loved ones without making a voice call.
A recorded message will point DoCoMo subscribers in areas with the
heaviest call volume to the message boards following an emergency.

The general hope is that directing "sympathy" traffic to the message
boards (which will be migrated to the planned separate data network)
will free up more bandwidth for voice calls that relate directly to
repair and rescue efforts. Conversely, text messages -- which take up
far less bandwidth than voice calls -- will also be more likely to
go through.

The concept is commendable. But we wonder if it will really work.
We are human, after all, and in times of crisis, the impulse is
most often to pick up the phone and make a telephone call. It may
be a difficult task for DoCoMo (and other wireless service providers
looking to implement a similar model) to convince subscribers that
reading text-based status messages is as reassuring as a
person-to-person conversation.

But one thing's for sure: We're not hanging up our mobile phones.
With the total number of mobile subscriptions in Japan reaching
more than 69 million at the end of March (up more than 13 percent
from the previous year), that makes for a lot of traffic. We
applaud wireless service providers' plans to increase
accessibility and ease network congestion -- with or without
an earthquake.

-- Laura Burstein

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Written by Arjen van Blokland and Laura Burstein
Edited by Roland Kelts (editors@japaninc.com)


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