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Emergency telecommunications
ITU responds to disaster in Japan
 
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Photo credit: AFP
Debris covers a rice field in Higashimatsushima in Miyagi prefecture following the tsunami

Earthquake and tsunami

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In the immediate aftermath of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011, ITU deployed satellite equipment to help reestablish communications vital for search and rescue operations in the disasteraffected areas.

As this edition of ITU News was going to press, more than 27 000 people had been officially reported dead or missing. Most are from the three hardest hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, according to information on the website of Japan’s national public broadcaster, NHK, on 4 April 2011.

This figure is likely to rise because, in some areas, entire families appear to have perished and there is no one left to report the dead and missing. Search operations were suspended within a 20-kilometre radius of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where an emergency was declared because of radiation leaks.

The earthquake and the tsunami damaged many homes and buildings. Figures from the NHK website on 4 April 2011 indicated that more than 150 000 people were living in evacuation centres. Infrastructure, such as bridges, transport systems, electricity, gas supplies and telecommunication facilities were severely damaged. Loss of power has had dire consequences, going beyond the loss of communications.

Solidarity

ITU has deployed a hybrid of satellite equipment equipped with global positioning system (GPS) capabilities to facilitate search and rescue operations. Most of the equipment is broadband and can therefore handle both voice and high-speed data. To address the current power disruptions, the equipment included solar panels and cables and can be charged from car batteries. The equipment was sent within the scope of the ITU Framework for Cooperation in Emergencies (IFCE) — an initiative launched in December 2007.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré communicated with the Government of Japan, expressing profound sorrow at the loss of life, injuries and human displacements, along with extensive damage to property and infrastructure.

“ITU is prepared to help the Government and people of Japan in every way possible in their hour of need to deal with the colossal tragedy that has overwhelmed the country with unimaginable loss of life and property. I hope the deployment of emergency telecommunications equipment will assist the Government of Japan in search and rescue operations and re-establish vital communication links,” said Dr Touré.

As well as providing immediate assistance in the form of emergency telecommunications to help with search and rescue logistics, ITU stands ready to provide longer term support to assess damage and rehabilitate telecommunication networks.

In response to ITU’s request to assist Japan, financial support was received from the governments of Australia, Canada and China, as well as from industry members.

Thanking ITU for its expression of solidarity and for its assistance, Yoshihiro Katayama, Japan’s Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, said that the satellite mobile equipment from the Union had already been distributed to the municipalities in need. “This equipment is contributing greatly to the rescue activities, and also serving as a means of communication in the affected areas,” Mr Katayama stated. He added that “The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and, indeed, all the agencies of the Japanese government are making every effort to overcome the devastation and difficulties inflicted on the victims of the disaster and the local authorities. In this task they are being supported by all Japanese people, as well as by countries from around the world.” Mr Katayama particularly commended the Secretary-General for his “swift action” as well as the ITU staff, “who were engaged in deploying the equipment.”

ITU has deployed a hybrid of satellite equipment equipped with global positioning system (GPS) capabilities to facilitate search and rescue operations. Most of the equipment is broadband-based and can therefore handle both voice and high-speed data.      

Along with the satellite equipment, clear and detailed manuals were sent to Japan so that local agencies operating on the spot could easily deploy it. Cosmas Zavazava, Chief of the Projects and Initiatives Department of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), said that ITU deployed different types of satellite systems in order “to hedge against risk of one system failing to perform as expected by users under challenging conditions.”

Masami Yamamoto, President of Fujitsu Limited, shares Dr Touré’s view that re-establishing communications is critical in disaster management. “As a leading ICT player in Japan, Fujitsu is working very hard for the recovery of its customers and social infrastructure systems”, said Mr Yamamoto, who looks forward to the earliest possible recovery of the country and the Fujitsu group.

As well as agriculture, Japan’s north east, with Sendai as the nearest big city to the epicentre, is home to ports, steel mills, oil refineries, nuclear power plants, and manufacturers of car and electronics components. Many of those facilities were destroyed or damaged.

The Japanese government estimates at around USD 308 billion as the cost of damage to buildings and infrastructure systems in the seven prefectures of northern Honshu and Hokkaido. However, this estimate, the government says, does not include the cost of damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. So the impact on the country’s overall economy could be greater.

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Photo credit: AFP
A fishing boat lies in rubble at Otsuchi town in Iwate prefecture

How does the ITU Framework for Cooperation in Emergencies work?

ITU’s emergency telecommunication deployments are part of its Framework for Cooperation in Emergencies (more commonly known as IFCE). Besides providing telecommunication services for disaster mitigation at all phases of disaster management, IFCE also mobilizes resources to guarantee an immediate, reliable, and timely response should disasters strike any ITU Member State anywhere in the world.

IFCE has three arms: technology, which brings together partners who provide technological solutions and equipment to ITU; finance, which has a standby fund thanks to contributions from Member States, private sector and other like-minded entities and individuals; and logistics, which attracts partners from the airfreight industry and transports equipment across the globe when disasters strike.

News and information

The world has seen the strength and resolve of the Japanese people in the face of these horrific events. Camera phones, handheld video and digital cameras added to the news transmitted regularly by NHK. Media around the world largely depended on NHK for their own coverage. From massive waves sweeping away cars to fires occurring in several cities, we all remember the speed at which this footage from the disaster reached our television screens or mobile devices.

In the wake of the disaster, some landline and cellular networks were either disrupted or heavily congested with traffic. Phone carriers had to limit voice calls on congested networks, but texting provided an answer.

Many people turned to the Internet to contact family and friends, or connect with people on the spot who could see what was happening.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Mixi — the social network most popular in Japan — helped keep communications open. Twitter saw its audience grow by a third to 7.5 million users during the week between 7 and 13 March 2011, compared with the traffic a week earlier, according to a report by Nielsen NetRatings Japan. The company’s figures are based on access via personal computers from homes and offices and do not include mobile phone use, which is an important platform for social media use in Japan.

The initiative is built on a strong foundation of sustainable partnerships. Countries that have made donations in the past include El Salvador, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Peru, Samoa, Suriname, Uganda and the Netherlands. Partnerships have also been forged with ICO Global Communications Limited; Inmarsat; Iridium Satellite, LLC; FedEx; Kyrgyz Telecom; Centrul National pentru Frecvente Radio Moldova; Qualcomm/ Wireless Reach; R.I.S.K. Company, Azerbaijan; Saudi Telecom Company (STC); SmartBridges; Tanzania Commmunications Regulatory Authority; TerreStar Global; Thuraya; ULTEL Ltd Azerbaijan; Vizada; and Potraz, Zimbabwe Regulatory Authority.

Technology

The technology cluster consists of satellite operators and land Earth-station operators, telecommunication operators — especially mobile service providers — and geographic information system (GIS) providers. These actors collect and disseminate historical and real-time information before, during and after disasters. This approach allows different agencies employing different technology platforms and different communication channels to use the Internet to collaborate in managing disasters.

Finance

The finance cluster seeks potential sources of funding to create a stand-by reserve fund for use when disaster strikes. The financial actors include governments, development banks and regional economic groups.

Logistics

The logistics cluster draws together support services, for example to transport telecommunication equipment to and from disaster sites. The logistics actors include air transport operators and international couriers.

“The IFCE makes ITU deployments unique because it draws support from a multi-stakeholder base, covers all essential elements needed to make rapid deployments, and is well supported by our Member States’ regulatory authorities, who facilitate cross-border movement of equipment without any delays at the port of entry,” explains Mr Zavazava.

 

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