With a new laptop computer under his arm, Kenji Takemoto marched into the Takasago Day Care Center in Sendai. It's been almost a month since an earthquake and tsunami devastated the coastal area of this city and for the tens of families living in the center, life is getting boring.
After the initial needs of food, warmth and a place to sleep were taken care of, thoughts turned to contacting friends and communications networks became a vital lifeline. Most Japanese cell phones have e-mail and web browsing abilities, but the small screen and limited features mean they've not perfect for everything.
That's where Takemoto, an employee of Intel, and the Hewlett-Packard laptop come in. Led by Intel, a group of tech companies are installing laptop PCs with WiMax connections in evacuation centers so the residents have a link to the Internet.
As he started unwrapping the PC from a protective plastic wrapper, a small crowd of children immediately formed around him.
"Through this we'll be able to search for things, right?" asked one of the children.
"Sure. We'll soon have this set up and you can access Yahoo Kids and other sites," said Takemoto.
"I don't need Yahoo Kids," shot back one girl who looked about 8 years old. "I want the real Yahoo."
Intel has already supplied 60 laptops to 30 evacuation centers.
The computers are being linked to the Internet via the WiMax service of UQ Communications. UQ, in which Intel invested US$43 million, already offered WiMax service in and around Sendai before the earthquake. Like all of Japan's wireless telecom carriers, its network was disrupted by the magnitude 9.0 quake but is recovering.
Wired and wireless phone service was particularly badly hit by the quake, which knocked out 1.5 million fixed lines and thousands of cellular base stations.
In areas far away from the quake zone, including Tokyo, service was spotty for days after carriers imposed restrictions that meant only about one in ten calls got connected. The limits kept circuits free for emergency users, whose phones have the ability to bypass the restrictions.
Wired and wireless service remains disrupted across the disaster zone. In the Takasago Day Care Center a few meters away from where Takemoto was setting up the laptop, a line of five telephones sat on a desk. Provided by fixed-line carrier NTT, they offered free calling for evacuees. Public payphones across the disaster zone were also switched to free calling soon after the earthquake.
In the nearby Tagajo Civic Center, wireless operator NTT DoCoMo has set up a desk with three cell phones that can be used to make free calls, a selection of recharging cables for the phones of evacuees and Samsung Galaxy tablets for Internet access.
Intel had also been there and set up a Classmate computer with WiMax connection.
A group of teenagers manned a desk nearby and were accepting questions from people living at the center. They would use the Classmate PC to jump online and find answers.
"Evacuees want lots of information," said Takashi Kato, one of the people running the desk. "When can I have a shower, when will we get gas, or when will gasoline be available, where, and how many liters can I get? We get questions like that and then find the answers."
Once the information was obtained, the answer was written on a piece of paper and posted on a bulletin board so it could be shared with others at the center.
As much as the Internet was enabling people to connect over a distance, inside the evacuation center paper ruled.
Signs and banners were everywhere and in the center of the main hallway a larger message board was full of notices. Many came from people who were desperate to contact friends and acquaintances who hadn't been heard from since the disaster.
At least 12,731 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami, according to the Japanese police, and 14,706 remain missing. A strong aftershock, the largest yet, rattled the area on Thursday evening and killed at least three people.
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