Mobile service interruption could have been ‘much worse’ during quakes: Report

Kathmandu, December 25

Interruption and destruction to mobile communications service and infrastructure could have been ‘much worse’ during the earthquakes of April and May, which underscores the need to prepare for worst-case scenarios, says the latest report of the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA).

Limited damage was caused to the country’s mobile network infrastructure during the quakes. Rather, a combination of interruption in power supply, human capacity limitations and procedural challenges contributed to failures across the chain.

“Despite the diversity of obstacles and dependencies, mobile operators demonstrated an impressive capacity to adapt, innovate and create solutions to ensure that their customers and those supporting humanitarian response were able to communicate,” says the report prepared by the association of mobile operators and companies across the globe.

However, there are lessons that need to be learnt from this episode, and existing preparedness plans should be updated accordingly, adds the report. “This will lead to a more effective and efficient response when the next disaster strikes.”

Right after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, two major telecom companies — Nepal Telecom (NT) and Ncell — focused on facilitating communications by offering free or discounted phone calls and text messaging services.

While these free services helped customers, many could not establish contact with their near and dear ones because of connectivity problem.

On April 27, for instance, 300 out of 500 base transceiver stations (BTSs) of NT installed in Kathmandu were down, while Ncell reported 43to 50 per cent of its cell sites were malfunctioning or down across the country.

These problems had cropped up largely due to lack of electricity and exhaustion of power back-up facilities.

Electricity supply was disrupted due to damage suffered by power infrastructure, such as transmission lines, and Nepal Electricity Authority’s decision to switch off power to reduce cases of fire or injury as power lines were ripped apart in many places.

Another reason for connectivity problem was the five-fold jump in traffic, which congested telecom networks, says the report.

Despite these challenges, Ncell, on April 30, reported 90 per cent of its cell sites were up and running. And on May 2, NT said only 40 of its 500 BTSs in Kathmandu were down.

Soon, life was coming back to normal and the quality of telecom services was improving. Then on May 12, Nepal was hit by another earthquake of 7.3 magnitude. The two telecom companies immediately assessed the damage to networks and restored connections, says the report.

“Despite the earthquake presenting a catastrophic large-scale emergency, from a mobile communications and infrastructure perspective, many agree that interruption and destruction could have been much worse, underscoring the need to prepare for worst-case scenarios,” adds the report.

In this regard, practice and testing through simulation should be the key, the report states.

“Simulations are a critical part of preparedness planning. These exercises assess whether business continuity or emergency response plans are effective and fit for purpose. Simulations allow these plans to be tested in a secure and safe environment, and help in identifying gaps in planning.”

Coupled with this, clear protocols should also be established ahead of time so employees know what to do in the event of an emergency, adds the report.

The quake first struck Nepal on Saturday, a public holiday. So, employees of telecom companies were not in their offices and many were on holiday. Even the CEO of Ncell was out of the country on that day.

“Whilst the Ncell CEO retained the leadership role, the deputy was granted local execution rights within two hours of the disaster. Such contingencies and delegation plans should be prepared in advance,” says the report, adding, “Employees should also be trained to check in and communicate about their safety and availability, as well as be aware of the primary channel for outreach, such as text messaging, and back-up methods, such as use of satellite phone and physical location rally points.”

In addition to this, effective coordination among telecom companies and government authorities is a must, according to the report.

“After the disaster struck Nepal, many mobile network operators could not raise their interconnection capacity due to a number of challenges. So, plans should be outlined and agreed upon by stakeholders, including government ministries, authorities and all mobile network operators, in advance,” says the report.

Also, authorities should create a level playing field for all mobile network operators in terms of access to resources or risk causing erosion in response capacity of telecom companies, which will have a knock-on impact on subscribers, adds the report.

This issue was raised as networks in some of the areas could not be fixed immediately due to lack of access to helicopters.