Info-tech

‘I'm okay, you're okay'

Adith Charlie | Updated on April 24, 2011

Weak with relief. - Photo: Bijoy Ghosh



July 26, 2005, was an unforgettable day in the history of Maharashtra. Large numbers of people were stranded on the road, lost their houses, and many walked for long distances back home from work that evening. The Maxim city was brought to a standstill by floods caused due to the eighth-heaviest-ever-recorded 24-hour rainfall figure of 994 mm.

Mumbaikars still recall how they were unable to connect with their near and dear ones that evening due to jammed mobile networks. There were several instances of worried relatives venturing out of their homes because they could not reach out to their folks on the mobile phones. Sadly, many of them never returned: 1,094 deaths were recorded in Mumbai alone. Disaster-recovery efforts too were hampered due to the failure of communication systems in the state.

Thankfully, the state has not seen a natural calamity of such magnitude in the last six years. During this time, the Indian mobile communications industry has grown exponentially, albeit, through a series of changes.

Today, some circles have 12-14 mobile operators compared with four or five then. Telecom operators, especially some of the newer ones, work on an outsourced model wherein their passive infrastructure and data centre activities are taken over by third-party vendors.

Due to climate change, the threat of natural disasters has only amplified in the last few years, as seen by the recent events in Japan (tsunami), New Zealand (earthquake) and Pakistan (floods). Telecom plays an important role in disaster management as it helps in dissemination of disaster-related information to residents as promptly as possible in addition to ensuring the restoration of a speedy communication system after the disaster occurs. And hence telecom operators need to have strong redundancy plans for the passive, active and the applications layer of their infrastructure.

eWorld tries to understand the disaster- recovery strategies of companies in the Indian telecommunications arena.

The occurrence of a disaster cannot be prevented fully. However, the overall impact can be reduced by preparing appropriate advance operational plans, establishing warning systems, training emergency response personnel, educating citizens and testing emergency procedures.

“India, as a country, has taken advantage of late entry into mobile communication by incorporating leanings from other countries, specially by having robust tower design for coastal areas, distributed switching locations, multiple power back-ups for critical centres,” says Vishant Vora, Chief Technology Officer of Vodafone Essar.

Unfortunately, the first causalty in any natural disaster is the power supply that propels the telecom cell site. A telecom cell site basically consists of electronic infrastructure such as base tower station, microwave radio equipment, switches, antennas, transceivers, etc, and non-electronic infrastructure that includes tower, shelter, air-conditioning equipment, diesel electric generator, battery, electrical supply and so on.

“One of the biggest lessons that the Indian telecom industry learned after 26/7 was to keep the diesel generator at an elevated position. On 26/7 several generators were burned following the unexpected rise in water levels,” says Rajeev Batra, Chief Information Officer of Sistema Shyam Teleservices, which operates CDMA-based services under the MTS brand.

Batra was one of the hundreds stranded in a Mumbai suburb for over 15 hours that day. India has close to three lakh telecom towers of which about half are connected to the electricity grid while the remaining ones are fired by diesel generators. Thanks to the irregular power supply scenario in the country, even the towers fired by electricity have a battery back-up option. Annually 1.8 billion litres of diesel, equivalent to the diesel consumption of the Indian Railways, are mopped up by telecom towers in India.

A massive power outage, as seen after the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year, means that cell sites and telephone cabinets immediately switch onto battery back-up mode. If power is not restored within the next 24 hours, the cell site goes off the operators' network. A CDMA tower generally has a range of up to five miles. For such situations, operators can use rapid deployment towers known as Cell-on-Wheels (COW). As per Wikipedia, a cell-on-wheels is a mobile cell site that consists of a cellular antenna tower and electronic radio transceiver equipment on a truck or trailer, designed to be part of a cellular network. This can be deployed in a short span of one day to ensure uninterrupted connectivity during dire situations.

“The van with emergency equipment could be taken as near as possible to disaster place. The BTS (base transceiver station) is connected to nearby working BSC (base station controller) either by radio system (within 30 km) or by pre-terminated optical fibre cable. The COWs are also equipped with arrangement for built-in power supply, battery, generator, etc,” a spokesperson for tower company Viom Networks (formerly Tata Quippo) says.

Crucial role for IT

Information technology too can play a crucial role in managing the power situation telecom towers face during a crisis.

Systems can be programmed in such a way that they would ‘action' the movement of people and direct them to supply fuel to the most critical towers first, says Prashant Pradhan, Business Head, Service & Asset Management, Global Technology Services, IBM India/South Asia.

IBM remotely monitors 30,000 cell sites of Bharti Infratel in India from its network operating centre in North India.

Remote managing of networks is paramount because the actual impact of the disaster, if it were a mild one, may not be immediately felt. In the case of earthquakes it has been noticed that the vibrations from the quake, apart from shaking electronic equipment and civil infrastructure, can cause soil to liquefy, in addition to stressing or breaking pits, ducts, and cables. If the liquefied soil were to enter the pits and ducts, there could be failures days or weeks after the initial earthquake, say analysts.

To share or not to share?

One school of thought suggests that the entire concept of sharing telecom infrastructure could cause the failure of multiple operator networks at the same time. Passive Infrastructure sharing is nothing but sharing non-electronic infrastructure at cell sites. For a telecom company, infrastructure — towers and backhaul connectivity — accounts for about 60 per cent of the cost of doing business. By outsourcing the management of majority of their telecom towers to specialist companies such as Viom, GTL Infrastructure, Bharti Infratel, Indus Towers, etc, telecom companies save close to 30 per cent on both capital and operating expenditure. On the flip side, the failure of a single tower — which is shared amongst different mobile operators at the same time — will cause all operators' networks (in the particular area) to become dysfunctional.

“Telecom companies need to do a solid cost/benefit analysis when it comes to engaging third-party tower companies or third-party data centre companies. They need to analyse the economic and reputation risks associated with tower sharing,” stresses Rahaju Pal, Director, Deloitte in India.

However, telecom operators think otherwise. Vora of Vodafone Essar thinks the argument is true only if the calamity is localised to a small area. In such cases it is standard practice to extend coverage to impacted area from neighbouring unaffected sites. “For calamity impacts that are over a larger geography it is quite likely that both shared and single-tenancy towers face the same risk. In such cases it is the capability to recoup that is more important and in that sense it is easier to reinstate smaller number of shared towers much faster than each operator bringing up non-shared sites,” reasons Vora.

When it comes to the active or core networks, telecom companies that have a strong disaster-recovery plan in place will be able to route majority of calls to alternate switching centres that have not been impacted. Though no company would provide for 100 per cent redundancies, preference would be given to government and rescue organisations involved in rescue operations.

“Large corporations have been serious about their disaster-recovery plans for quite some time now. However, the newer operators may not be as nimble as some of the well-entrenched ones, given the kind of competitive pressures and the need for expansion,” says Pal of Deloitte.

However, Batra of SSTL disagrees. SSTL has protected its applications infrastructure by housing its data centres in cities (Jaipur, Noida and Chennai) across three tectonic zones.

“If a critical set of applications (CRM, billing, accounting, other systems) are housed in the Jaipur data centre, then there would be a back-up for those in the Chennai data centre. This ensures that customers in another part of the country are not impacted in case of an outage,” says Batra.

In a bid to tide over the power situation in India, infrastructure companies are investing significantly in R&D to tap alternate energy sources such as bio-mass based gensets, fuel saver catalysts, fuel cells, CNG and energy storage platforms.

“Trials of alternate energy sources such as wind mills and solar energy are also being explored by the tele-infra companies to run their sites. These initiatives will not only help the tele-infra companies in tapping alternate sources of energy and reducing operational costs for the operators in the long run, but also reduce the carbon footprint,” says the Viom spokesperson.



> adith@thehindu.co.in

Published on April 24, 2011

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