Mobile communications and earthquakes : a very "disturbing" marriage

Last update: September 26, 2011 at 10:17 am by By is an expert in following earthquake consequences in every corner of the globe and has reported on every major earthquake over the last 12 months.  As we are following the events from minute to minute (and report about them in this site), we are starting to get a clear picture of what is going wrong. Communication problems are one of the major returning problems and we are convinced that they are avoidable.

Except that earthquakes themselves can be destructive all over the world, today's major earthquakes have certainly one major effect in common :

Major mobile connectivity problems when an earthquake strikes

Result 1 : people cannot reach each other and are highly concerned about their family members and friends in other locations.
Result 2 : all communications (data, voice and text) are wiped out, including those partly used by emergency services
Result 3 : people are rushing to their cars to drive home (during working hours), to schools, etc and create chaotic traffic (even more chaotic if some roads are blocked by cracks, debris, etc)

Coping with saturated mobile networks

Especially earthquakes which occur in or near major cities like Vancouver, Tokyo, Christchurch, New Delhi, Istanbul, Santiago de Chile, etc. are very dangerous for knocked out communications.
Lines can be knocked out by saturation or by technical failures.
We have to look into both reasons to find (easy, fast and cheap) solutions.

If the earthquake generates only minor damage, the lines generally are back to normal in seconds to minutes as people will calm down and continue what they are doing.
If a person, however, hears about injured people, destruction and casualties, he or she will not rest until being in contact with their loved ones. This is perfectly normal human behavior.

Can we prepare people how to handle their phones just after an earthquake ?
The answer is NO
Why : almost everybody will think that his family or friends are the highest value on earth and do merit "priority" service.
Teaching and preparing people on what to do in cities with a population on several hundred thousand, is UTOPIA.

Can the authorities and Networks manage behavior after an earthquake ?
The answer is YES
How ? : in following a few stringent "scenario" rules like :
a) by cutting/limiting VOICE communication based on earthquake alert levels for high magnitudes and limiting bandwidth for medium size earthquakes.  In case of a partial cut to services, all the people in the network could receive a text message like "Only text messaging is allowed until further notice due to an earthquake".
The levels of triggering such automatic cuts and according messages would be provided in cooperation with seismologists/geologists based on their MMI estimate (mainly based on historic data).
A technique called "Cell broadcasting" allows text messages to be sent to all cell phones in a specified region in a matter of seconds!
b) by reserving the full bandwidth to text messaging
c) by blocking all graphic internet data (pictures / advertisements / videos) for internet data traffic - text only takes a very small portion of the data bandwidth capabilities
d) by reserving enough bandwidth for voice and data for authorities and all kind of rescue services.
If the automatic triggering would not be accepted, a similar system can be triggered manually by organizations like FEMA (USA), ONEMI (Chile), etc
The discomfort of some will give comfort to everyone.

About technical failures

During 1 year of reporting we came across a number of remarkable findings like:
- A rather small earthquake in Peru made mobile connectivity almost impossible due to power outage.
- The September 2010 Christchurch damaging earthquake revealed an astonishing and remarkable connectivity. As during so many other earthquakes, power was immediately cut, but because of batteries the Mobile beacons continued (overloaded) to do the job.

The simple solution to cope with technical failures:
- Batteries which guarantee communications for at least 2 hours should be mandatory for every mobile mast and station / substation
- Construction standards for stations and masts must be able to resist a 1-in-1000 year earthquake, depending on the area/country. i.e. to build them to similar standards as other lifelines such as hospitals - which are required to have minimal damage given a large earthquake.

The cost of all these measures is minimal compared to the chaos that would come with a tragic earthquake.
Authorities should impose all of these measures. The results would be astonishing.
Today's technical wonders should be used at maximum to sustain a well organized society, able to handle big earthquakes.

Examples of earthquakes where Mobile networks where down due to one of both mentioned reasons
August 23, 2011 : Virginia earthquake - As gottabemobile reported, it is wreaking havoc on the cell networks from Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T. No one cell company seems to be immune from the massive burst of cellphone traffic.
September 18, 2011 : Himalaya earthquake Sikkim, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China


  1. I am Amateur Radio Operator W6AMR.
    All my communication run on 12v DC.
    I can operate for at least 14 days without domestic utility power.
    My portable HT's and mobile radios also have battery eliminators (will run off a auto battery)
    I can communicate by UHF, VHF, VOIP, teletype, repeaters and HF (world wide)
    Most Amateur repeaters have back up solar panels + storage batteries.
    I encourage you to get the members of your family and community - an Amateur License.
    When all else fails - Ham Radio Works!

  2. Zahrur Rachman says:

    Beside what you write above,  these following are also must have (for every authority at least) :
    1. A satellite phone (mobile phone or not) 
    2. Short Wave Radio and or CB Band Radio, but I think they already use this.
    3. A gasoline powered generator for providing temporarily electricity (no batteries please) .
    4. A BTS mobile unit, this is usually an all terrain vehicle with generator and antenna so that it can be moved to trouble area and providing enough support for communication.
    I think the only country (and the only authority) that prepare for earthquake is Japan. Rest of the world have NOT ENOUGH preparation at all, so we - the people must prepare ourselves.

    • Armand Vervaeck says:

      Zahrur, we agree
      Japan is well prepared but far from perfect. We will publish a few articles in the near future focusing on the many infringements against Basic Preparedness rules we have seen on videos .
      I agree on your remark about the gasoline generators, especially for stations and sub-stations + major masts in populated areas

  3. It happened in Vancouver, BC, Canada too! Even though the earthquake was very far from us and most people didn't feel it, the cell phone networks crashed! Many had messages reading "Emergency use only!" There were some actual outages as well! All of this and the earthquake didn't even do ANYTHING in Vancouver, BC! If this would have been a real quake causing damage I GUARANTEE YOU that EVERY mode of communication will be wiped out, no phone service at all! Landline OR cell phone. The internet may work because it copes with heavy traffic already, but if lines are damaged, it will be gone too! There are NO backup plans! The public knows NOTHING! I'm serious, if you lived here, you would think we live in a place where an earthquake will NEVER happen!! Many people even made comments on the last quake off Vancouver Island like "Oh, I guess that was the BIG ONE, we don't have to worry now""It's never going to happen, they keep crying wolf, and fear mongering" It's truly unbelievable how stupid people are in this area! I predict one of the worst disasters to happen when the quake hits the west coast, it will be one of North Americas BIGGEST disasters, and for Canada it will be like Hurricane Katrina was to the USA.

    • Yr. 2016: not much has change with respect to infrastructure readiness in BC. CBC radio recently produced a series named Fault Lines. This pod cast may increase public awareness..... but then what? Most folks calling Victoria, BC their home live day to day at the mercy of circumstances. Sad, really when viable alternatives are available.

Speak Your Mind