Ensure that mobile phone users can communicate during emergencies

Mobile phones are critical infrastructure. How can disruptions be minimized when they are hit by a major communications network failure? The government and mobile phone carriers should come up with effective measures to secure communications in times of emergency.

A panel of experts at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has met for the first time to introduce emergency roaming, which allows mobile phone users to use the lines of networks of other carriers to which they do not subscribe in the event of a communications network failure or disaster.

The ministry said the panel intends to finalize the basic direction by the end of this year with regard to issues such as the situations in which such a roaming service will be implemented.

More than 30 million people were affected by KDDI Corp.’s major communications network failure in July, and it took 86 hours to fully restore services. Emergency calls to police and fire departments became difficult to make, and in some cases, elderly people who became ill or people who got stranded in the mountains were unable to make emergency calls.

Emergency roaming is an effective way to avoid these situations.

NTT Docomo Inc. was responsible for another major communications network failure last year. It is quite natural that four major mobile phone carriers expressed a positive view of the introduction at the panel meeting.

International roaming, in which users use local phone company’s lines when traveling abroad, is already widespread.

The communications ministry considered adopting domestic roaming after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. However, the ministry decided to put off the introduction on the grounds that it would be technically difficult due to the different communications systems used by each carrier at that time.

As communications systems have since been unified, hurdles to the implementation of the roaming service have been lowered. To prepare for disasters, discussions toward the introduction of roaming must be deepened.

In the first place, there is an urgent need to introduce the roaming service for the use of emergency service numbers ahead of other purposes.

Currently, mobile phone carriers are required to allow police and fire departments to call back after someone who has made an emergency call hangs up, to check the location and status of the call.

However, it is difficult to call back across carriers when the roaming service is implemented with the presently existing systems, creating a barrier to the implementation of the roaming service.

It is desirable to flexibly operate the roaming service in the event of a communications network failure or disaster, such as by exempting such emergency cases from the mandatory call-back function.

Another major point of contention is whether to extend the roaming service in times of emergency to include ordinary phone calls and data communications.

In the event of a communications network failure, the lines of the companies accepting the communications may be flooded. It will take time to significantly expand communications capacity. The question remains as to who will bear the significant cost for that purpose.

It is hoped the expert panel will sort out the issues to be addressed and find a way toward the realization of the roaming service.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 7, 2022)