Japan Quake Tests Telecommunications

Reports from some of Japan's major electronics and semiconductor manufacturers suggest their factories suffered little damage from a very large earthquake that hit a large area of western Japan Friday afternoon although the region's telecommunications system was put under heavy load.

The earthquake, which hit at 1:30 p.m. local time, was centered 10 kilometers underground and had a magnitude of 7.3 according to Japan's Meteorological Agency -- larger than the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995 which was 7.2 in magnitude. At a televised press conference Friday afternoon, agency officials said there is a 40 per cent possibility of an aftershock with magnitude of more than 6 in the next 24 hours.

Following the earthquake, the Home Affairs Ministry in Tokyo quickly established a task force to gather information, according to Japanese public television broadcaster NHK. Later Friday evening the government announced the quake was large enough to receive a name -- the West Tottori prefecture earthquake.

Fujitsu Ltd., which has an LCD (liquid crystal display) factory in Yonago, the city nearest the epicenter, said staff evacuated the plant when the earthquake struck and soon after returned home to check on their own families and houses. Some staff have since been called back to check the factory and company spokesman Scott Ikeda said no damage had been reported to the headquarters as of 6:30 p.m.

Other plants in western Japan belonging to Fujitsu and those of Hitachi Ltd., Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. and NEC Corp. were undamaged according to spokespersons for the companies' Tokyo headquarters or offices. Hitachi reported that windows at the Yasuki plant of Hitachi Metals, a group company, were shattered during the earthquake.

Damage was light largely because the factories, which represent massive investments for the companies involved, are usually very well designed against earthquakes and have many safety measures.

"The production line automatically stops when anything above a 4 is registered," said Aston Bridgman, a spokesman for NEC. He was referring to a measurement of 4 on the Japanese intensity scale which runs from 0 to 7. Today's earthquake registered 6+ in several cities near the epicenter indicating it was enough to collapse some buildings.

Telecommunications operators reported heavy loads on their networks in the region following the earthquake.

DDI Corp., a major long distance and data communications operator, said part of its fiber optic backbone that runs along a road between Okayama and Tottori was severed and it was unable to provide telecommunications to some customers in the region. The company estimated it would take at least six hours to repair the broken cable.

NTT DoCoMo Inc., the country's largest cellular telephone network operator, said through spokeswoman Michiko Mori its network in western Japan is very busy and customers are having difficulty connecting because of the demand.

Because of telephone connection problems in the region, local telephone operator NTT West Corp. has activated a special disaster message service. Available in the area by dialling 171 from any telephone, the service enables people to record and leave messages concerning their situation and for friends and family to dial in and listen to the messages.

Japan Telecom Co. Ltd., the country's third main telecommunications carrier, reported no damage to its network but said it had imposed restrictions on the number of calls that can be made across the system to ensure it does not overload. As of 5 p.m. Friday afternoon the network in western Japan was rejecting between 10 and 25 per cent of all attempted calls.

Other companies were not immediately able to provide status reports on their factories in the region.

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