Burning issues after the SingTel fire

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 24, 2013

CALEB Ho, 32, thought he had all his bases covered when he signed up for two broadband services at home. The business analyst cannot tolerate downtime - even at home.

He does a lot of online research and covers the European time zone from Singapore.

But shockingly, both his SingTel fibre and StarHub cable broadband services went down at the same time two weeks ago.

This was due to the fire at SingTel's Internet exchange building in Bukit Panjang.

The incident took down critical services powered by SingTel across the island.

Banking customers of DBS, UOB and OCBC could not withdraw cash from some ATMs. Singapore Pools' betting services were down. Payment at AXS kiosks could not be processed. Even patient records could not be retrieved at one-third of the polyclinics here.

But the trail of destruction went beyond SingTel's services. Those of other Internet service providers (ISPs) were also affected. Cut off from the Internet were 48,000 commercial and home fibre broadband users - customers of StarHub and M1, not just SingTel.

Mr Ho's SingTel fibre broadband line was cut off for as long as 10 hours. But his StarHub cable broadband did not kick in as a backup. It went dead too.

Diversity of network?

THE huge extent of the damage created by one fire at one telco's facility raises the question: What exactly lies beneath the diversity of ISPs here?

Why was Mr Ho's StarHub cable link affected by the fire? Isn't the cable platform separate from SingTel's infrastructure?

As it turns out, the nation's sole cable network operator StarHub leases fibre links from SingTel for delivering pay-TV services and broadband connectivity to homes.

SingTel's fibre links are part of StarHub's backbone, although the latter's cable network provides the last-mile connection to homes here. Fibre and cable networks are based on different technologies, with the former delivering faster speeds.

Disruption to StarHub's cable TV and cable broadband transmission network was the least expected. Some 23,400 cable TV and 15,000 cable broadband users were also affected by the SingTel fire.

How about OpenNet, the builder of Singapore's ultra-fast fibre broadband network?

It was to be the sole competitor of and viable alternative to SingTel for wholesale Internet links. OpenNet supplies fibre links to StarHub and M1 as well as a host of new broadband entrants like ViewQwest, SuperInternet and MyRepublic.

But all of OpenNet's fibre optic cables are housed in SingTel's underground and in-building ducts. All of OpenNet's nine network centres are also housed within SingTel's Internet exchanges, one of which is in Bukit Panjang.

Internet exchanges are like hubs where fibre links criss-cross to distribute connections to all homes and offices here.

It was later revealed that two-thirds of the 149 burnt fibre-optic cables in Bukit Panjang belong to OpenNet.

Single point of failure

THE fire has revealed that while there may be a diversity of ISPs here, their connections converge in SingTel's infrastructure.

This single point of failure became a point of contention. People have been asking why there is no backup for an essential service like telecommunications. Why is it that after all these years Singapore still does not have a true alternative to SingTel's network that reaches every corner of the island?

StarHub depends on SingTel for portions of its cable network due to "legacy reasons", the former said.

When its predecessor, Singapore Cable Vision, was set up in the early 1990s, it entered into an agreement with SingTel - which had a monopoly on telecommunications facilities - to lease the latter's fibre links.

The long-term lease is still ongoing, StarHub said.

SingTel, on the other hand, had the advantage of government funding in the early years to hook up the whole of Singapore. It was a statutory board before being corporatised in 1992.

So in 2006, when the Government planned to fund another national network capable of rivalling SingTel's, there was a glimmer of hope that a second, alternative nationwide network would be created.

But in the end, the choice was made to lay new fibre lines in SingTel's existing underground ducts and Internet exchanges to avoid digging up roads.

The same approach has also been used in many other countries, including Malaysia, Britain, France and Australia.

The rationale is simple: It is cheaper and faster to reuse the existing ducting and Internet exchanges of the dominant telcos.

This is the reason why Singapore's national fibre broadband network rolled out by OpenNet, dubbed the Next Generation National Broadband Network (NGNBN), reached 95 per cent of homes and offices in just two years - setting a world record.

Consumers also did not have to wait long to reap the benefits of such a ubiquitous network.

In just two years since the launch of the NGNBN in 2010, more than 20 ISPs have set up shop here, giving customers more choice.

Broadband prices have more than halved, with more players vying for consumers' wallets. Today, consumers can sign up for a 200Mbps plan for just $39 a month - unheard of three years ago, when a 100Mbps line would cost about $70 a month.

The innovative VPN services of new ISPs have also opened up online content choices for consumers.

The flip side of efficiency

MEANWHILE, a duplicate network remains a luxury that even other critical infrastructure like the power grid and water pipes system here have not been able to create.

Even in banking, not all ATMs have dual Internet links - with the second one as backup in case the primary link fails. The cost is just too high.

Instead, banks deploy a mixed strategy: Links to two different Internet exchanges are given to ATMs that are isolated or in central locations. Other ATMs, especially those in a cluster, get one link.

So it seems that the issue now is what is done at these aggregation points. Specifically, what measures are taken to prevent a major disruption?

Surely, these points must be protected at all cost. The question is, are they?

Since investigations are still ongoing, it is not known what caused the fire.

But some people in the industry have already raised doubts about whether the fire suppression system at the exchange worked properly. They say the fire should have been put out in two minutes tops - not 20 minutes as it was in SingTel's case.

A committee of inquiry is being formed by SingTel to look into the causes of the fire and propose remedial measures. It should include independent experts as the problem does not just affect SingTel. It is a national issue.

The IDA has also said it is investigating the cause of the fire, which has so far stayed out of the hands of the police.

Separately, IDA is also reviewing the systemic resiliency of the fixed-line infrastructure of all operators here.

Yesterday, the regulator reassured the business community that Singapore's telecommunications networks are sufficiently diverse and resilient to avoid major disruptions. Alternative routes are in place to divert Internet traffic if one part of the network is cut off, the regulator said.

It is important that the IDA quickly determine what the lapses are and direct SingTel to plug any gaps. After all, the telco's infrastructure is still the backbone of most of the critical services here.

While it is important to have backup links, it is more important at this juncture to ensure that key buildings are protected at all cost. The authorities should, for instance, look at whether high-tech temperature sensors, fire suppression and surveillance systems are in place.

It may not be commercially viable to duplicate the network. But surely the resources for fire suppression and surveillance can be improved.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 24, 2013

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