The NTT Group is leveraging lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake and the immense damage it caused to implement a range of measures aimed at building a more robust communications infrastructure. Professor Atsushi Tanaka of the University of Tokyo joins disaster countermeasure leaders of NTT Group companies here, two and a half years after the disaster, to look back on the Group's efforts to date and consider the approaches and initiatives of group companies to prepare for the predicted occurrence of an earthquake along the Nankai Trough off Japan's southern coastline or one centered on Tokyo.
Atsushi TanakaProfessor, University of Tokyo
Director of Center for Integrated Disaster Information Research,
Interfactually Initiative in Information Studies
Haruo YoshidaExecutive Manager, Disaster Prevention Planning Office,
Technology Planning Department,
Shin KubotaSenior Manager, Disaster Countermeasures
Office, Maintenance and Service Operation
Department, Network Business Headquarters,
Hiroshi TsujiDirector, Disaster Countermeasures Office, Service Management Department, Plant Headquarters, NTT West
Satoru TairaVice President, Crisis Management Planning Office,
Customer Services Department,
Takeshi YamashitaGeneral Manager, Disaster Risk Management
Office, Network Service Operation
Department, NTT DOCOMO
A road section where a cable pipe/culvert crossing earth fill has subsided. A trunk line cable is buried beneath this section.
Deployment of large zone base stations
Yoshida (NTT): Even before the Great East Japan Earthquake, the NTT Group guarded against the occurrence of a major disaster by implementing a basic policy on disaster countermeasures that focused on the three themes of improving communications network reliability, securing critical communications, and promptly restoring communications services. Since 3/11, we've been enhancing these countermeasures based on the lessons learned from the disaster. As such, I'd first like to hear what Professor Tanaka has to say about our efforts to date and issues that we need to address.
Tanaka: Communications infrastructure underwent remarkable improvements after the Great Hanshin-Awaji (Kobe) Earthquake, enough that everyone was actually pretty confident of their ability to weather any contingency. 3/11, however, made a mockery of that confidence with the immense damage it caused. It certainly served to remind us all of the importance of telecommunications. You say that you're currently bolstering your disaster countermeasures based on the lessons learned from 3/11, so could you tell me about measures related to cables severed as a result of liquefaction and other ground disturbance?
Tsuji (NTT WEST): We've been implementing a three-year disaster mitigation plan since fiscal 2013 to build more disaster-resistant communications infrastructure, and this includes measures to counter the ground disturbance that you mention. In addition to trunk line multi-routing and shifting of trunk lines to more inland routes, we're also reinforcing trunk line cables passing through shallow layers of coastal regions. Even so, considerable distances are involved, and so we're tackling locations at highest risk first, while also examining and making preparations for responding in the event that cables are severed, such as setting bypass routes and arranging wireless communications as an alternative.
Taira (NTT COMMUNICATIONS): Where ground disturbance is concerned, the most critical locations are places where cables are strung along bridges and earth fills such as points where cable pipes and culverts cross. The 3/11 quake severed our trunk cables in two places, both of them as a result of ground disturbance-induced earth fill subsidence at such crossing points. We're accordingly using cable pipe renovation technologies to strengthen pipes in such locations.
Kubota (NTT EAST): At NTT East, we strung temporary aerial cables as a stopgap restoration measure for trunk line cables swept away by the tsunamis. For full restoration, we've taken measures such as burrowing beneath rivers to lay cable pipes, but it's difficult to do this at every location where we have cables strung along bridges. Doing so would involve huge investments and other difficulties such as the need to check the firmness of the ground and coordinate such measures with the local authorities who manage the bridges.
Tanaka: You all seem to be carrying out various measures, but even if you manage to shore up cables and other infrastructure, you still won't be able to restore services unless you have power supplies. What kind of measures are you considering to guard against prolonged power outages?
Yamashita (NTT DOCOMO): About 4,900 of our base stations in the Tohoku region stopped functioning after the 3/11 quake struck, but almost all of those were as a result of power outages. One measure that we've taken as a result is the deployment of 104 large zone base stations nationwide. Each of these base stations can cover a very wide area, and we've equipped them with their own generators to guard against prolonged power outages. Even so, it's very difficult to cover all areas with these base stations, and so we've boosted the battery capacity of key conventional base stations and taken other such measures to counter power outages.
Tanaka: No matter how much you bolster your hardware, it's never going to be a complete answer, and so as Tsuji-san said just now, it's important to develop concrete plans in advance for responding to disasters.
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Burrowing below rivers to lay trunk line cables
Advertising the 171 emergency service on water bottle labels
Tanaka: A crucial aspect of disaster countermeasures is the prevention of contingencies that should be avoided at all costs. In the NTT Group's case, the failure of critical communications is one such contingency. However, no matter what measures the NTT Group implements to maintain a robust communications infrastructure, there will be no point to it if users lose all means of communication. What are you doing in the way of boosting user awareness?
Tsuji: We see it as critical to maintain the communications of local authorities, since they comprise the core of local community disaster mitigation, and so since 3/11, we've intensified our marketing of disaster-related solutions for local authorities. While it is one of our businesses, we aim to work with our customers to help build a safe and secure society.
Taira: Because many of NTT Communications' customers are businesses, we've seen a huge increase in inquiries about business continuity planning (BCP) since 3/11. As a consequence, we've started carrying out disaster exercises together with our customers. We use the word "exercise" rather than "drill" because we want to provide a more realistic experience. For example, we don't inform participants in advance about the type of problem they will face or the timing of the exercise. If we did otherwise, it wouldn't be much help in improving customer disaster readiness.
Tanaka: I think that's a great idea. What about your initiatives for consumer customers? Immediately after 3/11, people were unable to connect through their mobile phones owing to congestion from all of the people calling to check on the safety of family and friends.
Yamashita: Dealing with network traffic congestion is an important issue, but when a disaster strikes, the first thing we want people to do is use our message board services for checking safety status. After the disaster, we also developed our Disaster Voice Messaging Service to address demand for a service that enables people to leave voice as well as text messages. When people post voice messages confirming their safety status, a notification is sent to the mobile phone of the person that the message is intended for. Since these services use packet rather than voice communications, making it easier to connect at the time of a disaster, I think it's important for us to further raise awareness of their existence.
Tanaka: In addition to encouraging the use of message boards for checking on safety status, I think that cooperation with other organizations outside the Group, and groupwide initiatives such as the way NTT East and West are seeking to ease congestion by deploying more emergency use public phones are also important. What kind of initiatives are being pursued in that direction?
Kubota: As a measure for people stranded in Tokyo and unable to get home owing to a disaster, we've worked with Seven & i Holdings to equip all 7-Eleven stores in Tokyo's 23 wards with Wi-Fi access and emergency use public phones, thus creating a structure for at least enabling people to get in touch with others if they find a convenience store. We think that this will also serve as a countermeasure to network congestion, and plan to expand it to other areas outside Tokyo.
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A disaster exercise in progress
Tanaka: Research suggests that there's a high probability of a Nankai Trough earthquake or one centered on Tokyo in the near future. The former would affect a wide area, while the latter would be concentrated on one particular area, so they differ in nature, but I'd like to know about how you envisage their impacts and the countermeasures you are focusing on.
Yamashita: Because something like a Nankai Trough quake would affect such a wide area, we would need to set an order of priorities, and also examine how exactly we would tackle such wide area support. In the case of a direct hit on Tokyo, our buildings are designed to withstand such a quake, but even if we can assume that they will suffer no serious damage, we need to consider other perspectives such as ensuring continued power supply.
Kubota: Since recovering from a wide area disaster is not just a matter of restoring communications, I think it would be very helpful if group companies work not only with each other, but also with companies responsible for electricity, gas, water, railroads, roads and other lifelines to develop a clear picture of what they could do in such a contingency.
Yoshida: Cooperating with other organizations outside the Group is indeed critical. We telecommunications carriers are categorized along with the providers of other lifelines as "designated public institutions" under the Basic Act on Disaster Control Measures, and we're in fact already holding joint study sessions. We're also talking with other telecommunications carriers about cooperating through local authorities and so forth.
Tanaka: There's a limit to how much one company can do on its own, and so I see a need for society-wide initiatives such as, for example, telecommunications carriers getting together with each other or with other industries to share the resources they all need for maintaining business continuity. I'd like to see the NTT Group playing a lead role in forging such cooperation.
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Restoring communications services after the heavy rains suffered by northern Kyushu in July 2012
Walls and doors of communications buildings have been reinforced and made more airtight as a flood defense measure
Tanaka: The words of one lifeline provider I once chatted with have stuck in my mind ever since "the devil is in the detail". I take this to mean that the effectiveness of disaster countermeasures depends very much on taking a really long, hard look at the details well before anything happens. Could you tell me how you're all planning to implement disaster countermeasures from this perspective?
Kubota: At NTT East, we've focused on envisaging possible disasters and implementing measures to beef up our hardware, for example by deploying more disaster response equipment for avoiding communications blackouts and bolstering the disaster resistance of our communications network. However, actually operating and controlling such assets does indeed require meticulous and repeated examination of the details. That's why we're also paying close attention to soft aspects such as regular practice and the formulation of rules.
Yamashita: We too are implementing various measures based on detailed predictions of the kind of damage that would occur in the event of a Nankai Trough quake and so forth, but I think we need to continue to examine these measures relentlessly to ensure that they're the best we can do. It's no good just thinking on paper, so we aim to get a very solid grasp of the reality by going out and checking things out on the ground.
Tsuji: We are expected to have a very firm idea of what our customers need when disaster strikes and responding to those needs in a way that keeps abreast of changes over time and changing situations. We still tend to think of ourselves as a telephone company, but the communications infrastructure that we're responsible for now handles dedicated business lines, Internet and other types of traffic, and so we need to think about what we should put first.
Tanaka: Nothing is of course more important than human life, but it's a matter of deciding what, after safety status checking, needs to be done next, isn't it?
Tsuji: Yes. I myself experienced serious flooding two years ago when I was involved in an equipment project in Wakayama, and I remember being told by a local that he would've liked to see bank ATMs back in working order sooner. We need to think seriously about critical communications services up front, but we also need to pay constant attention after first impact to changing local damage status and customer needs as we go about restoring services.
Taira: As the provider of international communications, I feel that we bear a responsibility to ensure that Japan remains connected to the outside world. As such, we not only need to protect our interconnecting gateway switches (IGS) and other equipment for global communication from disaster damage, but I think it's also very important to go beyond reinforcing individual items of equipment to look at how to respond at the network level where all these dots are joined up. For example, if a gateway switching unit has been washed away by a tsunami, we could restore services faster by enabling network traffic to be diverted through another unit rather than trying to replace the ruined unit.
Tanaka: So in other words, your focus is on restoring services rather than equipment. That's a very valid approach. NTT is virtually a synonym for "communications", and it's your business to protect those communications services. Going without communications for three days is a pretty stressful experience to most people in the present age, and that includes me, so it's important to implement BCP from the viewpoint of society as a whole.
Yoshida: Communications are indeed an indispensable part of everyday life nowadays, and so we always need to bear in mind the impact of communications on society as we go about our business. As such, to prepare for when something serious happens, we need to consider how to address the demand for communications from various perspectives the NTT Group as a whole, we and our customers as a whole, and also the way we cooperate with central and local governments, other carriers, and other companies responsible for manning our society's infrastructure. As you (Professor Tanaka) said just now, the devil is in the detail. Where disaster countermeasures are concerned, we can't afford to leave any loose ends untied. We need to examine and give thought to every little detail. We see it as our duty to protect Japan's communications, and we're committed to doing whatever is required to fulfill that duty.