Chinese in Earthquake Zone Flock to WeChat as Calls Fail

Chinese in the earthquake-hit province of Sichuan resorted to instant-messaging apps including WeChat to communicate with family and friends, as overloaded voice networks prevented calls from connecting.

Yu Yuli posted a note telling friends she was safe on Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat, China’s most popular instant-messaging app, after futile attempts to make calls. The quake, measured at magnitude 6.6 by the U.S. Geological Survey, killed at least 193 people and injured more than 12,000, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

“I was really surprised to see that I was still getting messages on WeChat,” said Yu, 49, a manager at a logistics company in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. “I was able to get in touch with friends in a very short time, so I panicked less.”

Apps from Internet companies including Tencent and Sina Corp. have become an important tool for Chinese to locate relatives and help rescue efforts in natural disasters. Government agencies have also recognized their merit. After the April 20 quake, the Chengdu government posted a message on Sina’s Weibo, a Twitter-like service, urging people to cut down on phone calls and use WeChat, Weibo or text messages to save resources for rescue operations.

One of the first Weibo comments from the China International Search and Rescue Team, asking for first-hand accounts of damage, was reposted nearly 480,000 times as of yesterday afternoon.

Mobile Bandwidth

Yu, who lived through the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed more than 70,000 people, said she completely lost touch with family and friends then. This time, with WeChat, she was able to post a photo of her displaced furniture using a Facebook-like service called Moments, and messaged a friend to reschedule an appointment.

WeChat had more than 300 million users as of January, according to a post on Tencent’s official Weibo account.

Messages sent through mobile apps and text messages take up less bandwidth than voice traffic, Li Shaoqian, a professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, said in a phone interview. Because it doesn’t require real-time transmission like a phone call, WeChat data traffic can be put in a waiting line for connection.

“When you make a phone call, you’re competing for bandwidth just like you compete for space on the road when you are driving a car,” Li said. “WeChat takes up a lot less resources.”

In addition, fewer of the base stations that enable wireless communications were damaged than in the 2008 disaster, Li said.

China Mobile

At China Mobile Ltd., China’s largest wireless carrier, 221 base stations remained out of service as of 6 p.m. on April 21, Rainie Lei, a Hong Kong-based company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. In the 2008 earthquake, 4,457 base stations were knocked out, according to a company report.

The spike in popularity of instant-messaging applications is both a challenge and opportunity for traditional carriers as WeChat and Weibo’s mobile apps ride on the bandwidth provided by traditional carriers including China Mobile, said Hu Yong, an associate professor of journalism at Peking University in Beijing.

“Text messaging and other traditional services might decline,” Hu said. “But carriers are not necessarily losers, as they can also benefit from the spike in traffic.”

Jerry Huang, a director of investor relations at Shenzhen-based Tencent, and Liu Qi, a spokesman at Sina in Beijing, didn’t immediately respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

— With assistance by Lulu Chen, and Edmond Lococo

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