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Gov't to demand SoftBank explain cell service outage; 11 other countries also hit

A SoftBank shop employee, right, speaks to customers during a mobile network service outage on Dec. 6, 2018, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

TOKYO -- The service outages that struck mobile phone giant SoftBank Corp.'s LTE high-speed mobile data network on Dec. 6 qualify as a "serious incident" under the law, and could prompt the government to issue direction to the company, communications minister Masatoshi Ishida said the following day.

"I would like to consider what measures are necessary in this case, including possibly issuing administrative guidance," Ishida told a news conference in Tokyo. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications sought SoftBank to submit a detailed report on the cause of the trouble plus a plan to prevent a recurrence.

SoftBank Corp. mobile phone customers began having difficulty using voice and data services at about 1:39 p.m. on Dec. 6, and the problems persisted until 6:04 p.m., according to an apology posted on the company's website. There were also disruptions to the cellphone network of SoftBank subsidiary Ymobile Corp., as well as to mobile phone services provided by third-party firms using the SoftBank network.

The outages saw long lines forming at pay phones in Tokyo, and disrupted operations at national parcel service Sagawa Express Co., whose drivers depend on mobile phones to communicate with delivery recipients. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Fire Department posted messages on its homepage, Twitter and other outlets urging SoftBank customers reporting a fire or other emergencies to use a landline or mobile phone network operated by a different provider, or to go directly to the nearest fire station.

Similar service outages were seen on mobile networks in 10 other countries at about the same time. These included that of British carrier O2, which was disrupted for some 10 hours. According to the BBC, O2 has some 25 million subscribers in the UK.

SoftBank has stated that the incident was caused by software glitches in network routers made by Sweden-based telecoms equipment giant Ericsson. The Swedish firm issued a statement on Dec. 6 saying it had found a problem in its software used "in certain nodes in the core network" resulting in "disturbances for a limited number of customers in multiple countries."

"The faulty software that has caused these issues is being decommissioned and we apologize not only to our customers but also to their customers," Ericsson CEO Borje Ekholm was quoted as saying.

However, Ishida noted at his Dec. 7 news conference that SoftBank had also seen service interruptions in February this year. "As a company providing telecommunications services indispensable to the people of Japan, (SoftBank) must deal seriously with the latest incident," he said. Furthermore, as the problems affected 30,000-plus people and lasted for upwards of two hours, they qualify as a serious incident under the Telecommunications Business Act, Ishida said.

SoftBank Corp. and Ymobile Corp. combined have about 40 million mobile device contracts.

The trouble came less than two weeks before the mobile carrier's Dec. 19 debut on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. A company spokesperson said, however, that "the incident has at this time had no effect on business performance or the individual share price." Bloomberg reported on Dec. 6 that the IPO had been fully subscribed.

SoftBank Group Corp., the carrier's parent, is planning to speed up investment in artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies as future growth drivers, using funds pulled in by the IPO. The mobile carrier is expected to focus on its core domestic business so that it will remain a reliable profit center, but the latest problem may affect the IPO price.

Japan's major mobile carriers are preparing the roll-out of a next-generation 5G network starting in 2020, while expectations are also high for new "internet of things" (IoT) services to network devices as diverse as vehicles and medical equipment.

To develop these new services, "guaranteeing communications stability and providing backups in case something goes wrong are absolutely essential," one analyst told the Mainichi Shimbun. The latest outage has highlighted the SoftBank network's vulnerability, and the company will need to find out what happened and draw up preventative measures in a hurry. Failure to regain the trust of customers and investors could impact the group's long-term planning.

(Japanese original by Arimasa Mori, Business News Department, Kim Sooryeon, City News Department, and Ryuji Tanaka and Taiji Mukohata, Special Reports Group)

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