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Massive telecom outage in Japan kicks 40 million mobile users offline

KDDI advises customers to act like it's 1993 and rediscover landlines and payphones

Almost 40 million residents of Japan spent the weekend in The Time Before Smartphones after local telco KDDI Corp. experienced its biggest outage to date – affecting both voice calls and data communications.

Luckily for the company and its customers, the outage began in the wee hours of Saturday morning – 1:35AM (1635 Friday UTC) to be exact – rather than peak time.

However, the disruptions did drag on, at least for some, until Monday morning.

Of the almost 40 million users, 260,000 were corporate customers. The outages disrupted the Meteorological Agency's weather data, bank teller machines, payment machines, parcel deliveries and more.

In an announcement regarding the outage, KDDI cited "equipment failure" as the reason for the service interruption.

"VoLTE exchanges are experiencing traffic congestion," warned KDDI on Monday. The company also said it was taking measures to control flow rate to reduce traffic congestion. That congestion meant that even femtocells installed on customers' premises were inoperable.

The company advised users take up retro tech in the form of landlines or payphones in the case of an emergency.

Landline subscriptions in Japan decreased by ten million in the years between 2014 and 2020, according to Statista.

Public phones are also on the decline. However, while some major cities have completely removed payphones to make way for contemporary infrastructure – like New York City this past May – Japan retains a number of affordable public phones as a service to its citizens.

Only last November Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications eased requirements mandating the existence of public phones to closer reflect modern times and the decline in their use.

Instead of requiring a public phone be installed every 500 square meters in urban areas and every square kilometer in other locations, they are now required every square kilometer in urban areas, and every two kilometers in other places, according to The Japan Times.

The thought behind the continued existence of public phones is that they could come in handy in an earthquake, tsunami, or other natural disaster. Or, as experience has now proved, in the case of an "equipment failure".

The disruption comes just days before an election for the upper house of Japan's parliament on July 10. Incumbent prime minister Fumio Kishida's re-election agenda includes commitments to improve digital infrastructure – which suddenly seems awfully topical.

On Monday, KDDI shares declined around four percent as markets pondered its post-outage prospects. ®

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