SingTel has been slapped with a record S$6 million (US$4.81 million) fine for an October 2013 fire that brought down multiple communications services and affected 270,000 subscribers including government agencies and financial institutions.
The fire broke out at its Bukit Panjang Exchange on October 9 and affected services were only fully restored 8 days later on October 17. The blaze damaged fiber cables and base stations, halting fixed voice, broadband and mobile services, as well as ATM services across the country. The incident impacted not only SingTel's own customers but customers of other telcos.
Singapore's ICT regulator Infocomm Devleopment Authority (IDA), said in a statement that SingTel had breached its obligations outlined in the nation's Code of Practice for Telecommunication Service Resiliency, causing "severe disruption" to its services. It added that the incident could have been prevented if the telco had enforced standard operating procedures and work safety practices, such as ensuring proper supervision when hot works were being carried out at the exchange.
The telco had blamed the fire on maintenance work at one of its lead-in pipes located in the cable chamber, during which an employee used an unauthorized blowtorch.
In statement, IDA noted that while SingTel had some business continuity management procedures in place, these did not include specific policies to deal with serious service outages such as the Bukit Panjang fire. In addition, the regulator said the telco's network and practices comprised outdated work practice of using lead sealants in the cable chamber, hence, requiring hot works to be conducted. There was also a single point of failure at the exchange, and SingTel had mistakenly assumed fiber paths were diverse for some enterprise customer services without properly testing these.
"For failing to meet its obligations under the Service Resiliency Code, IDA has imposed a financial penalty of S$6 million on SingTel. Mitigating factors were taken into consideration by IDA in determining the financial penalty [including] SingTel providing affected users with alternative services during the incident and its offers of compensations to such users after the incident," IDA said.
The regulator also dished out fines for CityNet and OpenNet totaling S$500,000.
CityNet, which owns and manages the Bukit Panjang Exchange, had failed to meet its requirements as a Facilities-Based Operator licensee and had procedural lapses such as not having proper approving process for hot works, IDA said. It also failed to ensure work safety and compliance with proper operating procedures. The company was fined S$300,000 by the regulator.
In issuing a penalty of S$200,000 on OpenNet, IDA said the country's designated Network Company (NetCo) had caused delays in restoring services to affected users. OpeNet could have expedited service restoration and recovery process, for example, by observing "more appropriate" service restoration procedures for large-scale service disruptions. The lack of such processes had resulted in unnecessarily prolonged duration of service disruptions for affected users, said IDA.
It said the three operators had since take various steps to address the shortfalls. SingTel, for instance, replaced duct seals in exchanges so hot works would no longer be required, and installed automatic fire suppression systems within cable chambers in all its exchanges.
Leong Keng Thai, the regulator's deputy chief executive and director-general for telecoms and post, said: "This is a very serious service outage of a magnitude that is unprecedented, but more importantly, that could have been avoided. With increasing dependency of businesses and consumers on telecommunications, a strong signal must be sent to telecommunication operators that they must take network resilience very seriously, and invest in necessary infrastructure, processes and training to prevent and minimise service outages.
"IDA will closely monitor the operators' undertaking of the corrective measures and ensure that they are implemented."
Leong said the regulator would continue to review its regulatory frameworks to ensure telcos "take proactive steps" to enhance the resilience of their networks and services.
In his post following the fire, tech lawyer Bryan Tan suggested the incident could result in several implications regarding service level agreement since it affected not only SingTel's own customers, but also the customers of other telcos as well as other businesses in the banking sector.