The process of restoring communications after a major fire last weekend in Lærdal, an area of several thousand people on Norway's west coast, has begun in earnest. While thankfully no one died in the fire, a number of buildings were destroyed, including one owned by Norway's largest telco Telenor, reduced to ashes by the blaze.
This building was the main communication hub both for the Lærdal region itself and some of its neighbouring municipalities. "The building contained all the telecoms equipment for fixed-line telephony and internet in Lærdal, a 2G/3G base station and connections to 15 base stations further downstream, and the main fibre backhaul connections," Bjørn Amundsen, director head of coverage at Telenor, told ZDNet.
"At the most, 15 of our base stations in Lærdaland surrounding municipalities were down, 454 fixed-line customers in Lærdal and three other villages were disconnected, and some hundred subscribers lost their internet connections," he added.
"The situation was critical right away, as the local crisis management teams needed communications. In addition, a lot of other critical and important services that rely on communications also needed our immediate action," he added.
Other telcos were also affected: Netcom, Telenor's main rival in Norway, rents fibre backbone capacity on Telenor's backhaul in Lærdal. As a result, Netcom lost connection to 14 of its base stations in the same area. "We didn't lose any equipment in the fire, but connections to all of our base stations were gone," Tommy Johansen, head of coverage at Netcom, told ZDNet.
The blaze was first reported to the fire brigade at 11.53pm on Saturday evening. At 02.33am on Sunday, Telenor lost contact with equipment in Lærdal, and had its first crisis taskforce meeting at 04.10am that morning.
The telco mobilised a mobile 'coverage on wheels' (CoW) truck, which contains a 2G/3G/4G mobile base station and a power generator. On Sunday morning, Telenor's technicians started to install a container on the site of the Lærdal hub, housing the same equipment as the burnt-down building had formerly held.
At the same time, Netcom sent in technicians with spare equipment and generators from Bergen, a city some 180km away, according to Johansen.
Both the CoW truck and the container arrived in Lærdal during Sunday evening. At 10.30pm that day, Telenor had one base station up and running by the hospital, which received some of the hundreds of people injured by the fire, returning mobile coverage to parts of the centre of Lærdal.
The day after, the CoW truck was online, expanding more coverage and adding 4G data in order to provide more bandwidth.
One side effect was that Lærdal will keep its 4G coverage after the communications building is rebuilt, meaning the community will get fourth-generation mobile coverage from Telenor a year earlier than planned.
Still work to be done
"The situation right now is that we've got five or six of the base stations online again. The remainder will come online when the crisis container is completely installed, during the next few days," Amundsen said. Fixed-line subscribers will start being reconnected at the end of this week, and all should have their connectivity restored in under a week.
"Yesterday we started giving out free mobile broadband routers with a free two-month subscription, in order to get everyone online again. It is important that personal safety alarms, card payment terminals and other services relying on internet connections are up and running as soon as possible," he added.
"Right now, Netcom has normal coverage in the centre of Lærdal. We have five of our 14 base stations up and running again, the rest are awaiting Telenor’s completion of connections to the crisis container," Netcom's Johansen said.
"We've seen excellent co-operation between Telenor and Netcom during these days of frantic work to re-establish the networks in Lærdal," Johansen concluded.
The communication problems during and after the fire have ignited a debate in Norway around whether government funds should be allocated to bolstering mobile networks in Norway, for instance, with extra redundancy to make the networks more fault tolerant. Some commentators point to Sweden, where the government has spent five times as much money on this, compared to Norway's budgets.