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Saturday 19 October 2019
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Digicel, TSTT ready for natural disasters

Digicel has microwave backup which enables the company to keep mobile services and data services going in the event of a disaster.
Digicel has microwave backup which enables the company to keep mobile services and data services going in the event of a disaster.

Since Digicel’s CEO Jabbor Kayumov has been in Trinidad, he has experienced a 6.9 earthquake, flooding, the effects of tropical storm Karen and Carnival. And while Carnival may not be a disaster, what all these events have in common is their potential to put pressure on a network.

Disasters are when unpredictable forces are happening and you're never ready for those. But you always have to be, especially when you're in telecommunications, right?

Kayumov says experiencing these events has made him realise how strong his team at Digicel is and he believes it is this strength that makes them perform well through times of disaster. “Digicel is not only in Trinidad and Tobago, it has a footprint all over the Caribbean. So I think one of the competitive advantages we have as a group is with that wide Caribbean spread is our topology when it comes to our reach throughout the Caribbean.

Digicel CEO Jabbor Kayumov (from left); Liam Donnelly, general manager business solutions; Stephen Rodriguez, customer care operations director; and Chandrika Samaroo, operations director.

“If any of the layers of the fibre were to be interrupted, we’d have the second layer up right away. All the core solutions have flood redundancy, earthquake redundancy and more. So if by any chance any of our territories were to be hit by any disaster, the group comes into force, making sure that customers at the end of the day will not really feel any interruption of the service. Tobago is actually a good example and I think during the last storm some players may have struggled because of power supply, fibre breaks and many other connection breaks between the two islands.” Kayumov says that the sustainability of the services is very advanced and it is prepared for this type of situation. “You can't really build a system that will be 100 per cent prepared for disaster, but getting to 90 per cent is a good level to keep your operation at when it comes to these types of networks which have to be up 24/7.”

Chandrika Samaroo, Digicel’s operations director, believes reliability starts with design. “We designed our cell site foundations to withstand category four hurricanes, for instance. The structures themselves are very strong to withstand those types of wind forces. So from that very basic level at the point of construction, we have preparedness built into the network. And our network is a combination of two major technologies. There is a microwave technology which is wireless, and there is the fibre technology. Fibre has the advantage of being a much higher capacity, much better speeds but also a lot more vulnerable like we saw in Tobago with tropical storm Karen.

"We had a couple sites that were impacted due to power outages. Every single one of our sites has battery packs, but batteries can only last you so long. After eight to ten hours based on the usage of the sites we start seeing the site's battery dying until power is restored to the sites.” Samaroo says that from a basic connectivity perspective between the islands, Digicel has both fibre and microwave and that is what enabled the telecommunications company to survive the storm.

“There is one route on land between Trinidad and Tobago and also subsea between Trinidad and Tobago. So if that subsea fibre cable were to be cut or if that on land route is devastated all providers would be impacted. We have our microwave backup which enables us to keep mobile services going and enables us to keep our data services going for mobile customers. Our TV service keeps going, and of course our business services. Because that load of capacity now on the microwave back haul that we had, we had to manage that as. So whilst we ensured most of the services survived we were still partially impacted in other ways to get it done.”

While fiber technology has a much higher capacity and much better speeds it is also a lot more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters like storms.

Samaroo said in Trinidad, every single cell site has battery backups. “We have about 40-50 per cent of our cell sites with backup generators while our major hub sites have dual generators as well. A network is like a hierarchy. We have our data centres which are very important. Those would have dual generators, dual power systems, dual lines of Internet coming in, dual fibre, dual microwave to ensure that in the event of a disaster affecting any one of those pipes we have resilience. I think we were able to demonstrate it during the flood that happened last year and the floods that happened this year as well. When everyone else was impacted, we were able to activate that resilience and keep our customers connected. And I think during an emergency, that it is most important to have customers informed, and the public generally, informed as to what's going on, what's the status because we're talking about life and death sometimes, right?”

Samaroo says preparedness for Digicel is an ongoing thing and the company has a strong partnership with the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (OPDM) when it comes to sending communications to the wider population in times of disaster. Penny Gomez, Digicel’s public relations director, told Business Day, “This is not just about our customers in the case of a disaster. It's really the entire nation and responding as a service provider, seeing the role that we take as one that is offering national service. So we send out eSMSs. And not only for the ODPM, but also for the TTPS, we were able to assist them. So that's important, having that connection. Of course, to our customers as well and making sure that they are taken care of.”

During the passage of tropical storm Karen close to TT, Digicel put an SoS top-up offer for its pre-paid customers who may have been affected by the flooding and could not get to a retailer to top-up their phones to stay in touch.

“We thought it was important to show that we valued their safety and well-being, and a plan was designed with them in mind, so they could stay communicated and connected to their loved ones and just do it from the convenience of their homes,” Gomez said.

Regarding how quickly the SoS top-up was mobilised, Liam Donnelly, general manager of business solutions for Digicel, said, "It took us three hours to actually roll it out to the market. We'd gotten a call and everybody kind of knew what to do and in three hours it was available. And to be fair, the product was ready. There are many capabilities of our systems. And it's not just that, but also the the readiness and agility of the team, to jump in and fulfil the level of social responsibility which you carry as a telecom operator because you're connecting people. If something else were to happen, the first thing people want to do is make a call to their loved ones or family members and check if they're safe, right?”

As for how fast the detection process is when it comes to disaster and potential network failure, Samaroo said, “It's real time for us. We have network operation centres across the Caribbean, Trinidad and Jamaica being our biggest ones and they monitor our networks. So the instant a site goes off or a site loses electricity or a site goes on generator, we know about it. The instant our flood sensors are activated, we know that water is rising. We know instantly. And when that happens, it triggers a very massive internal business process for us because two things need to happen. We need to assess, determine recovery or even if it's safe to recover... And of course how to manage the customer."

Stephen Rodriguez, Digicel’s customer care operations director, says it’s definitely a team effort. “Once something has happened, the technical team proactively reaches out to me, and sometimes before the call, I already know what's the issue and things like that. And we have ways to communicate to our customers to keep them informed.

Rodriguez sees the team's work during the passage of Karen as one of Digicel’s success stories, as he believes the team really appreciated that their safety was valued as much as getting service to our customers.

Kayumov still believes there is a lot of work to be done. “We’re still quite far away from what we can do. It’s very interesting that when it comes to TT, the demand of customer experience is close to the global benchmark. Trini people are very educated. They know the world and what they want. But when it comes to provide the customer service, we know where it should be and what we're working on now is to really bring it on par with how it should be, and you have to be ready to provide that level of customer experience and we're getting closer.”

Suite of disaster solutions

Hassel Bacchus, TSTT's chief technology officer. Photo courtesy TSTT

What about TSTT? Is the incumbent operator as prepared? Chief technology officer Hassel Bacchus says yes. “Communication is critical during a natural disaster for a myriad of reasons such as identifying hazardous situations, co-ordinating relief efforts and implementing plans for recovery. As the national communications provider, TSTT embraces its role in providing support before, during and after disasters. When implementing systems, we remain focussed on minimising the loss of critical communications services during natural disasters by adequately planning and preparing for these emergencies.”

The disaster management effort is coordinated by TSTT’s CTO and it considers all aspects of the business. “The disaster management playbook which has served us well in the past, is frequently reviewed, evaluated and updated to maintain its relevance. However, it is also important to note that by design, TSTT’s network is built to be resilient to the challenges we experience here in the Caribbean.” TSTT also works in an emergency support function (ESF). “TSTT's representatives form part of the ODPM's response plan. Upon activation by the ODPM, ESFs respond and activate TSTT's disaster management system. Key internal stakeholders and the team from TSTT’s network operation centre provide continuous support by actively monitoring the status of the network and providing resources to promptly restore critical services to minimise impact to the relief efforts, recovery activities or critical institutions.”

Ian Galt, general manager of enterprise services, confirmed that TSTT provides a suite of disaster preparedness services and solutions for its business clients.

“TSTT has made major strategic investments in our networks including a world class data centre, that is the first in the region to achieve TIA-942-B (Rated 3) and SOC 2 international standards certification. These are the most rigorous international standards available within the ICT industry. Our highly secure data centre guarantees 99.99 per cent uptime availability and we have actually maintained 100 per cent uptime over the last seven years.

"It offers a safe, secure and robust operating environment in a geographically stable location with security procedures and protocols akin to a military facility. With these resources, TSTT offers many forms of business continuity solutions to our clients, from disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) to back-up as a service (BaaS), all delivered atop state-of-the-art networking infrastructure, both locally and regionally.”

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