NTT Docomo must raise reliability in wake of massive system failure

It has been shown that a mobile phone network failure can have a significant impact on the provision of a wide range of services. NTT Docomo Inc. should use the lessons learned from the major system failure to tackle measures against future problems.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has issued administrative guidance to the mobile phone carrier over its service disruption in October, which left many mobile phone users unable to make calls through the devices or send and receive data. The ministry has ordered the company to take thorough measures to prevent a recurrence. It also urged Docomo to report its progress by Dec. 27.

Communications minister Yasushi Kaneko described the incident as “having seriously damaged the interests of users.” Docomo must quickly present an entire picture of its concrete measures to prevent future system glitches.

After the network trouble that occurred on the evening of Oct. 14, it took 29 hours to fully restore services. According to Docomo, more than 12.9 million people were affected — more than 8.3 million regarding data communications and about 4.6 million regarding voice calls.

Customers suffered from a variety of problems. The disruption of data communications services made it impossible to use a variety of other services, such as food delivery orders placed by smartphone, electronic payments made by smartphone and car sharing services arranged by smartphone.

As more and more people do not have landline phones, it is possible that many people lost their primary means of communication. The recurrence of such trouble cannot be allowed.

The system failure occurred when the company was switching to a new server that stores location data for electronic payments for taxis and vending machines. The switching work failed, causing a temporary accumulation of a large amount of data that overburdened the telecommunications network.

Docomo said that it is reviewing the work procedures. It is important for the company to establish a mechanism to minimize damage to the entire telecommunications network, even in the event of a system failure.

This time, Docomo explained that it had restored connections about three hours after the failure took place, even though some parts of the telecommunications network were continuing to experience connection difficulties. As this expanded the confusion, the ministry asked the company to send out information carefully and thoroughly.

In case of trouble, it is important to bear in mind that prompt and accurate information dissemination is essential.

In the future, with the spread of the high-speed, high-capacity 5G telecommunications standard, it is expected that self-driving systems in which cars are controlled by an enormous number of sensors and other devices, telesurgery that uses high-definition images, and robots that respond to disasters, among other technologies, will be put into practical use.

The negative impact of communication failures on society will become even greater.

The ministry has urged other major mobile phone carriers to conduct an emergency check to see if they are doing enough to prevent communication problems. It is important to make efforts to improve the reliability of the telecommunications network by sharing Docomo’s lessons throughout the industry.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 3, 2021.