Connected in quake chaos

KEEPING CONNECTED IN QUAKE CHAOS

When an earthquake struck Maggie Chen’s office building in Chengdu, she fled taking only her mobile phone with her. "The first thing I did was call my husband," she says. "I would have felt helpless and frightened if I couldn’t contact my family."

Maggie, a 31-year-old China Mobile subscriber, was one of millions affected by the Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, one of the worst earthquakes in China’s history. It left nearly 70,000 people dead and more than 5 million homeless.

Bo Deng, Service Delivery Manager at Ericsson was at a workshop in Chengdu that day. He was soon to become a hero, keeping the phone network up and running throughout the devastation.

The epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake was 80km northwest of the network operations center that we run for China Mobile in Chengdu. Bo realized he had to act quickly. Unable to reach his own family, he concentrated on getting across town to the Sichuan Mobile Operation and Maintenance Center – the communications hub for 10 million China Mobile subscribers.

He and his colleagues piled into a car to find a route around the congested traffic to get across town. "People were rushing to leave the city, and taxis and buses were stopped," Bo says. "It took more than an hour to travel the 40km to the center."

Their efforts in the first critical hours after the quake ensured that people could call for help on their mobiles, or check on their loved ones.

"When we arrived at the center, we couldn’t be sure of the building’s stability, so we connected to our exchange using a wireless LAN outside," Bo says. All the voice network exchanges kept running normally. "The system never went down, despite extreme network traffic."

In the weeks that followed, Bo helped with rescue efforts and stayed on duty at the operations center. "Uninterrupted communication was important to save lives and helped speed up the rescue operation," he says.

Juan Liu, a manager for Mianyang prefecture, which sustained some of the worst losses in the region, says a functioning mobile network was essential in coordinating the response: "I relied on the network to receive orders from rescue headquarters and receive messages or calls from anyone who needed help."

She used her mobile phone constantly during the crisis. Communications were vital for everyone. "The first thing survivors want to do is to contact their family," she says.