Oct 11, 2013

    Telco fire puts spotlight on back-up plans

    THE disruption of SingTel's services, caused by a fire at one of its cable facilities two days ago, cast the spotlight on the resiliency of infocomm infrastructure here.

    Experts My Paper spoke to said that fires at such facilities were unusual, as the facilities are critical infrastructure and have high safety standards.

    The fire on Wednesday afternoon in one of the cable chambers at the telco's Bukit Panjang exchange damaged 149 fibre-optic cables. This affected some 60,000 of its broadband customers.

    The exchange houses network equipment and cable infrastructure.

    SingTel said services for its business customers were restored by 7pm yesterday and that all remaining services were expected to be restored by 7am today.

    The disruption also hit 30,000 of SingTel's mio Voice customers, 7,900 of its fixed-line users and 46,000 mio TV subscribers, who were largely in the northern parts of Singapore. Affected areas included Woodlands and Upper Bukit Timah.

    Other businesses like banks and Singapore Pools, as well as government agencies and schools, experienced downtimes.

    Subscribers of M1 and StarHub were also hit, as 98 of the damaged fibre-optic cables belong to OpenNet, the builder of the nationwide ultra-fast fibre network.

    M1 said 1,000 of its customers were affected.

    Apologising for the service disruption at a media conference yesterday, Mr Yuen Kuan Moon, chief executive of SingTel's consumer division, said an internal board of inquiry will be convened to determine the cause of the fire.

    He said that SingTel adopts "one of the best practices worldwide" for a business-continuity programme. This includes having standby equipment that can quickly take over the functions of spoilt equipment.

    But in Wednesday's blaze, Mr Yuen said there was physical damage to the fibre-optic cables, which had been burnt. He said staff had to physically repair the cables in a confined space.

    Asked if the disruption could have been worse, he said the telco has eight other exchanges located around the island, not just one.

    On why fire-prevention measures did not kick in at the exchange, Mr Yuen said a full investigation had to be completed before the telco could reply.

    Asked if any action would be taken against SingTel by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), Mr Pranabesh Nath, a research manager at market-research firm Frost and Sullivan, said it depends "on the cause of the fire and if all preventive measures were taken".

    Mr Nath noted that StarHub and M1 were affected, too. So, if SingTel is found liable, the potential penalty could be as much as the record $1.5-million fine imposed on M1 last week for its January disruption, or even more.

    Mr Mike Ang, president of the Association of Telecommunications Industry of Singapore, said it was unusual that a fire broke out in a facility like SingTel's, given that such places have "textbook safety standards" to meet.

    For one thing, such facilities have very large power systems and generate a lot of heat. So, they would have high-tech air-conditioning systems and fire detection and suppression systems, said one infocomm industry expert with over 40 years of experience.

    The expert, who declined to be named, said an explosive growth in Internet use, with a rising amount of equipment installed in the facility, could cause a fire due to limitations in a facility's infrastructure, more so if it is not upgraded.

    IDA said in January that it would review the back-up plans of telcos after M1's disruption. The review is ongoing.