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Pagers may make a comeback in Japan as emergency lifelines during disasters

Kyodo

The powerful frequencies of pager devices are attracting attention as an improved means of disseminating emergency information to the public when disasters occur.

Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region, a growing number of municipalities have been making use of the frequency bands used by pagers. The strength of these bands means signals can be received even inside buildings and in underground locations.

Pagers were especially popular among younger people in the 1990s, but their use sharply declined over the years due to the popularity of mobile phones and the personal handyphone system, or PHS.

During disasters, local governments mainly use a wireless system to broadcast crucial information. They transmit information using frequencies around 60 megahertz for broadcast via outdoor speakers, as well as through receivers set up in the homes of those who consent to install them.

But the 20-cm-long, 25-cm-wide receiver is costly — priced between ¥30,000 ($267) to ¥50,000 apiece. Poor signals within buildings also hinder the transmissions.

Mass emails sent to individual mobile phones are one alternative, but these fail to reach those without such phones — including many elderly people. Such limitations have made the pager frequency bandwidth of 280 megahertz more appealing.

Tokyo Telemessage Inc., the only firm in Japan providing such services, offers a portable terminal that can receive pager frequencies for around ¥20,000.

The firm said the equipment is nearly the size of the single receivers used for the wireless system during disasters. Wherever it is located, the terminal can receive signals, display text messages sent by local governments and convert such information to audio alerts.

As of late May, 21 municipalities in 12 prefectures have either introduced this service or plan to do so soon, according to Tokyo Telemessage.

Among them is the city of Yamato in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo, where audio messages transmitted via outdoor speakers using the wireless system often become inaudible in homes soundproofed to cope with noise from the U.S. Navy’s Atsugi air facility. The city introduced the pager service in 2015.

The pager frequency can “reach more easily even within buildings, and the cost is low,” a Yamato city official said, adding that the municipality hopes to use it in schools and social welfare facilities.

Tokyo Telemessage President Hidetoshi Seino said, “Inquiries and orders from local governments have increased since the Great East Japan Earthquake.”