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Editorial: KDDI's network failure spotlights need to boost Japan's telecom infrastructure

Japanese telecom giant KDDI Corp., operator of the "au" mobile phone network, bears a heavy responsibility for its recent and massive service outage, causing a large part of the telecommunications infrastructure we all depend on in our daily lives to grind to a halt. The root of the breakdown must be thoroughly investigated to prevent a recurrence.

    The outage was apparently caused when a malfunction in the equipment that converts callers' voices into digital information cascaded into other systems, impacting calls and data communications on up to 39.15 million phones. The effects continued into a third day after the initial breakdown. This was an exceptional situation.

    The impact on daily life and business activities was enormous. Package delivery status updates and weather data collection were disrupted, and some bank ATMs could not be used. This highlighted the risks of a society where a wide range of things and services are connected via the internet.

    Telecommunications are essential during natural disasters such as torrential rains, typhoons, and earthquakes. They are also core to next-generation technologies including self-driving vehicles. It goes without saying that if they are paralyzed, the results could be fatal, so all possible precautions must be taken.

    Fellow mobile giant NTT Docomo Inc. experienced its own network outage in October 2021. The company failed to take thorough measures in the event of trouble during construction of communication facilities, and the outage lasted for 29 hours.

    The communications ministry had urged telecom companies to strengthen measures against this kind of problem. But the lessons learned have not been fully utilized, and KDDI did not adequately consider the possibility that a malfunction in just part of its equipment could lead to a total communications failure. It is undeniable that the chaos was deepened by the company's overoptimistic assumptions.

    It is essential to verify whether the backup systems and employee education and training were sufficient to prepare for a breakdown.

    The way KDDI treated its customers during the crisis was also problematic. At first, the company only posted a short notice about the network failure on its website, and it released precious little information about the cause or when the problem might be fixed until a press conference the following day.

    The enormous scale of the breakdown meant there were limits to how much KDDI's stores and call centers could do. The company needs to devise better information dissemination and communication methods.

    The communications ministry considers this a "serious accident" under the Telecommunications Business Act and will issue administrative guidance. As the number of landlines and public telephones declines, policies to improve the quality and stability of mobile communications are required.

    Machines are bound to break down. The risks of cyberattacks and other contingencies are also increasing. Efforts should be strengthened to prevent communications crises, and minimize the impact when they do occur.

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