Infrastructure, Access and Congestion: Three Natural Disasters Disrupt Mobile Communications

Two powerful earthquakes struck Northwest China on Monday, July 22nd causing significant damage, injuries and a loss of lives. Thousands of buildings and homes have collapsed, and an estimated 27,000 people have been left homeless.  Since the major Sichuan quake in 2008, China has experienced over 20 earthquakes above 6.0mg on the Richter scale. As a result, Mobile Network Operators in the country have been ramping up their preparedness and response activities to better prevent and cope with disruptions. The latest quakes disrupted the mobile networks with 15 of China Mobile’s base stations impacted in the affected areas. At present, most interruptions are reportedly due to power failures in the region.

This recent event underscores the challenges that mobile operators and response agencies face in accessing hard-hit rural areas to begin their relief and restoration work and the importance of pre-positioning emergency equipment in vulnerable areas.

An earthquake also struck New Zealand on Sunday, July 21st, causing disruption to the network in the top of the South Island and the bottom of the North Island. Nine of Vodafone’s sites were knocked offline immediately following the earthquake, however service interruption was brief. Outages and call failures have been attributed primarily to congestion on the network and isolated power failures rather than infrastructural damage.

Monsoon season and an unusual intersection of weather patterns converged between June 15th– June 17th producing devastating floods in Northern India and Western Nepal. Flash floods and landslides have killed hundreds of people, sweeping away homes, roads and infrastructure stranding tens of thousands. Uttarakhand State in India has been the most severely impacted and emergency response agencies struggled to access affected areas. Power and Telecommunications were largely destroyed in the area, further compounding the difficulty in obtaining accurate information, communicating with survivors and coordinating relief and rescue efforts. Despite the challenges, India’s mobile network operators geared up to restore communication and the data from their networks is now being used by Government agencies to trace calls and assess CDR records to assess the death toll.

Photo Credits: [Top]: By Mukerjee, from Wikimedia Commons; [Middle]: By USGS, from Wikimedia Commons; [Bottom]: By Mukerjee, from Wikimedia Commons.

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