How 'resilient' are Singapore's telecom networks?

Amid a spate of recent outages in the spotlight, Singapore’s telecoms regulator has defended the robustness of the country’s networks. Still this may be a wake up call for enterprises and building owners to plan ahead.
Written by Ryan Huang, Contributor

A recent spate of telco service outages in Singapore has raised questions over the "resiliency" of the country's networks. The issue was particularly thrust under the spotlight by the fire earlier this month at SingTel's Bukit Panjang exchange, which took down several telecommunications and banking services in various parts of the island.
Notably the fire came just a week after regulators slapped a record fine of S$1.5 million (US$1.2 million) on M1 for Singapore's worst mobile services outage in January this year. The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) then conducted a resiliency review of all three telcos and gave them the thumbs up as they generally met international standards. Nonetheless, just a week later, M1 suffered an outage of a few hours.

One of 3 chambers at the Bukit Panjang exchange had 149 cables damaged by fire (source: SingTel)

So how resilient are Singapore's networks?

Investigations are still underway, and the IDA is taking steps to enhance standards with an upcoming audit framework, its first, for mobile networks. This appears to be a more preemptive approach than when it had previously relied largely on tools such as the Telecommunications Act, Service Resiliency Code, and Quality of Standards to incentivize telcos to be up to par, or face punishment when incidents occur.
IDA did not reply to specific queries on why an audit has not already been rolled out and when exactly the process in forming the framework started.
Amid the public concern, the regulator has defended the "robustness" of Singapore's infrastucture and told ZDNet there were enough backup systems and diversity of services in place.

The idea of resiliency does not equate to complete redundancy and "doesn't mean no incidents and zero downtime", but is a balance between risk management and cost, and is supported by diversity, IDA said.

Is there enough diversity for resilence?

One possible analogy illustrating diversity is that of transport, where if for example the train service goes down, there are alternatives such as taxis and buses for someone to still get from point A and point B, albeit perhaps at more inconvenience.
In the context of Singapore's network infrastructure, IDA pointed to how end users had a choice of nearly 20 service providers. Still, that's unlikely to be much consolation to those affected by the fire-related disruption, which numbered over 60,000 based on SingTel customer figures alone, especially those left complaining of unresolved outages in the following week of the fire.

For enterprises, this might serve as a wake up call to relook their business continuity plans.

A key measure of resiliency is recovery time, so having ready access to alternatives will be a critical area for enterprises to review besides their service level agreements with vendors. According to the IDA, business end users who need more resilient services to insure against path or exchange failures should purchase path, exchange or platform diversity from operators.
By that same token, this may be the push for some buildings who have long resisted allowing the national broadband network building, OpenNet, to wire up their premises. Reasons had varied from the inconvenience of installation work to general inertia from being content with the sole provider of network services via incumbent SingTel-owned cables. Incidentally, the rollout speed of the national broadband network could potentially be affected by the closely scrutinized impending buyout of OpenNet by SingTel.
Nonetheless, the effectiveness of network backups come down to the location of the outage. That's why the feasibility of alternatives will have to be reviewed and new workflows designed if necessary. This is particularly in light of how rival service providers were hit during the fire-related outage because they had leased infrastructure from incumbent SingTel.

In the meantime, IDA has pledged to study the SingTel fire incident to see if there can be ways to improve systemic resiliency of the country's network infrastructure.

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