Japanese Internet providers weather disasters

National networks have failed during disasters, but Japan's Internet remains essentially unimpaired

As Japan deals with the aftermath of its strongest earthquake ever, a devastating tsunami, and potential nuclear disasters, the nation's Internet has managed to survive and provide emergency communications for workers and displaced family members, according to networking monitoring firm Renesys.

Out of 6,000 network prefixes, only 100 have been withdrawn from routing tables, and traffic from Japan apparently remains essentially unchanged, according to Google. It could be considered just another Internet survival story, but considering the extreme conditions in Japan, it's remarkable that the nation's telecommunications networks have done so well, says James Cowie, CTO and co-founder of the firm.

"I hope that we (the U.S.) have done as good a job in engineering as the Japanese did," Cowie says. "This has come off, from an Internet perspective, with far less impact than I would have thought, and that is due to Japanese network engineering."

Traffic into and out of the Japan Internet Exchange fell by about 20Gbps to 30Gbps on the first day following the earthquake but quickly recovered. In fact, the breaks in the undersea telecommunications cables, thought to be Pacnet's EAC cable system, affected the Phillippines and Hong Kong more than Japan, although the overall impact was still small in both areas. Telecommunications firms have used a second set of cables to route around the damage Pacnet EAC cable system.

In 2006, the Hengchun earthquake, which struck just south of Taiwan, damaged the undersea cables provided that nation's communications, disconnecting the country from the global Internet, according to Renesys.

The earthquake is the worst on record for Japan. In 1923, the Kanto earthquake, which had been the strongest temblor at a magnitude of 7.9, caused widespread damage and fires in Tokyo, killing 143,000 people. In 1995, the 7.3-magnitude Hanshin quake near Kobe killed 6,400 people. The latest quake, which has a recently adjusted magnitude of 9.0, and the resultant tsunami has killed thousands of people.

For emergency workers and people trying to reach family members in hardest-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima, Internet communications have become a lifeline, says Cowie.

"There are people who said that I couldn't use my cell phone, I couldn't use my fixed line phone, but the Internet was still up, so I could get word out to my family that I'm OK," he says.

The longer chaotic conditions continue in Japan, however, the greater the likelihood that some outages will occur. Like the Northeast power outage during the ice storm of 2008, companies may find that fuel reserves that are powering telecommunication hubs' backup generators run out, potentially leading to more significant outages, Cowie says.

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