“Technology is a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other.”
– CP Snow
The recent spate of mobile phone network outages has left many people wondering what is causing it. There are many theories from varying segments of the industry with plausible reasons including:
1. VOLUME VERSUS CAPACITY
A commercial carrier network is only designed for best effort, particularly between the handset and the base station. As such, resources are allocated to maximise revenue rather than to assure services. This means over-subscription of LTE/MPLS VPN services at the expense of service assurance. Call ‘drop outs’ are an indication of over-subscription and congestion of the network. This could be the likely reason that carriers do not provide a Service Level Agreement on a best effort network.
2. PROFIT MAXIMISATION
In order to reduce OPEX and maximise profit, companies may outsource non-core capabilities. This results in a shortage of internal capability and a dependence on contractors. In some circumstances, contractors are beaten down on price stemming their ability to provide comprehensive support services.
3. THE HUMAN CONNECTION
The greatest and best designed system can always be brought down by human error. The traditional view is that systems are basically safe and it is human interference that causes most incidents. A novel concept has emerged that sees systems as not fundamentally safe and human errors are symptoms of contradictions, pressures and resource limitations deeper inside the system1.
Regardless of the causes, the potential impact of a major network outage is damage to the company’s reputation and profitability. According to The Australian, Vodafone network outages between 2010 and 2011 led to 2.4 million customers (23% of the total) abandoning the network, in the ensuing three and a half years.
In 2008, a single severed Optus cable resulted in a four-hour shutdown of phone and internet services to thousands of Optus customers impacting businesses and individuals across Queensland and northern NSW.
The recent Telstra outages had a similar affect when a ‘significant number of customers were disconnected from the network’, resulting in frustrated customers and a loss of profitability with its Telstra free data days.
Commercial network outages can lead to revenue loss, reputation risk and loss of customers. However, over-designing a network can be costly and wasteful to the environment.
While the recent network outage did not endanger human life, a key takeaway from these network outages is that it raises the question whether a carrier network, even with hardening, can support critical services such as emergency services. The report by the productivity commission ‘public safety for mobile broadband’ touches on the impact of network outages, and touts whether a dedicated mobile broadband network for Australia’s public safety agencies (eg police, fire, ambulance and emergency services) is required to ensure Agencies have the adequate capabilities to effectively respond to emergencies.
Titan ICT is an independent consultant whose purpose is to make a difference by driving optimisation. The key to optimisation is that the design must be fit-for-purpose, whether it is mission critical or a best effort service.
#1 Dekker, S. 2001. The re-invention of human error. Centre for Human Factors in Aviation, IKP Linkoping Institude of Technology, Sweden.