The imperative of staying connected

Local telcos might wince at the $6 million fine SingTel attracted for a widespread telephony and broadband failure last year, but they should focus on the regulator's goal of ensuring the telecoms sector has robust systems and effective disaster recovery procedures. It can be seriously disabling when not enough attention is paid to the latter as it is what separates a fail-safe system from a merely functional one. The experience of last October's failure was staggering, as parts of the island faced a service standstill - all because of the astonishing act of a worker using a blowtorch he was not supposed to. The slow fire he started in a cable housing was initially undetected, another surprise. Mobile provider M1 was also implicated in a service disruption last year which inconvenienced many.

It cannot be gainsaid that an international business city that makes its living in finance, logistics and specialised services relies totally on nano-second telecommunications capability. Use of complex equipment not matched by commensurate maintenance standards and staff supervision could be an operational oversight or a planning deficiency. Whichever the case, any vulnerability needs to be set right.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) noted that SingTel's business continuity protocol lacked contingency specifics to cope with a large-scale service outage. In the event, the disruption which lasted about a week compromised Singapore's reputation for efficiency. Some 270,000 subscribers and businesses were affected, including banking and health services.

Systems failures do occur in the most sophisticated networks, but how quickly an organisation bounces back is a measure of the robustness of its services in the face of fire and flood threats. Speedy recovery is usually done with a parallel backup, which, for Singapore's market size, is unfeasible though not unthinkable. The alternative is top-notch maintenance and systems upgrades. IDA's conclusion that the October lapse was avoidable said it all.

SingTel and related providers CityNet and OpenNet, which were fined lesser amounts, ought to study their plant investments. SingTel has the financial muscle to invest in state-of-the -art systems and not tinker around the edges, although the IDA found its networks to be of international standard.

There are parallels in the MRT system where large sums will now be spent on capital replacements to reduce track failures and improve services, after doggedly sticking to patch-up work earlier. The message in all of this: Singapore's hard-earned reputation for efficiency can be lost pretty quickly without relentless efforts to ensure sustained delivery.