Photo/Illutration A police officer receives an emergency call in Kyoto in January 2019. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Telecom giant KDDI Corp.’s large-scale network failure is raising questions about what kind of backstops carriers should have in place if their systems should fail.

The KDDI system glitch had prevented some people from making emergency calls, shaking the public’s tacit trust in the modern communications system.

People now largely depend on mobile phones in the event of an emergency, and there are far fewer alternatives than in the past. The number of pay phones has been reduced by nearly half in the past decade while the number of households that do not have a landline has increased.

The communications ministry and others have long discussed how to secure ways to send urgent messages during a disaster, when networks might experience various types of difficulties keeping their systems running as usual.

One issue in particular has been in the spotlight.

For more than 10 years, the ministry has talked about implementing a disaster roaming system that secures means of communications by allowing users of a given carrier to piggyback on other networks.

But the plan has yet to be realized.

The ministry set up a panel to discuss the plan based on the lessons learned from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disaster.

A report released in December 2011 pointed out that this kind of system had been established in most EU countries.

The report concluded that it is “appropriate to establish a forum for a dialogue immediately and conduct a review” to quickly bring the plan to fruition.

But the ministry said the dialogues held afterward eventually came up with little because while the communications standard at the time was 3G, NTT Docomo Inc. and KDDI ran their networks in different ways. That became the bottleneck of the discussion.

Now, next-generation communication standards, such as 4G and 5G, are common, but dialogue on emergency roaming has not resumed.

The ministry said it “has not abandoned” the plan and it “continues to be an issue.”

But some observers said even if a roaming system is implemented, it would not be able to handle every kind of system failure--including the recent KDDI case.

The ministry said KDDI’s trouble occurred in the network core, so it is likely that roaming would not have been possible in this instance.

Discussions on how to respond in instances where base stations and relay stations are damaged in a disaster have always been predicated on roaming.

Other countries' telecommunications systems and safeguards may also fall under the spotlight going forward. For instance, in the United States, people can make an emergency call from a mobile phone without a SIM card.

(This article was written by Satoru Eguchi and Yasuro Suzuki.)