Hong Kong tech experts have urged regulator OFCA to update the nation's telecom service regulations, after SmarTone’s more than six-hour mobile service outage on Monday.
Legislative Councilor (IT Constituency) Samson Tam said the government has to come up with service outage reporting rules. “There’s no such requirement in Hong Kong,” said Tam. “But mobile customer expectations have changed -- they demand to be connected at all time. The government has to think about a report mechanism – including when to report to the public and the regulator after knowledge of an outage-- and require operators to comply.”
Around 11 am on Monday, some SmarTone customers started to complain of losing phone or mobile connections or both. However, SmarTone – with a customer base of 1.62 million - didn’t post related information on its Website and Facebook page while the company’s customer hotline was jammed.
The telco said there was a power failure at one of its three switchboard stations at around 8am while the firm’s backup power system failed at 10:35am. SmarTone claimed on Tuesday that results of a regular test on its backup power generator on Feb 22, 2012 indicate the facility functions normally, adding it will submit a report to the OFCA and evaluate its incident reporting mechanism.
Despite Hong Kong’s highly reliable power supply, Charles Mok, founding chair of Internet Society Hong Kong, said the SAR lacks full electricity redundancy, unlike in some other cities or countries.
“So [telco service reliability] depends on the operators,” Mok noted. “I am not sure about SmarTone’s facilities planning. But if [its facilities] are of industrial strength like those of higher tier data centers, the firm should have backup power that can last a day or more.”
Tam also suggested the government to impose disaster recovery requirements similar to those for the banking industry on telcos. “A telco needs to have a separate site to continue their services when power failure or fire hits,” he said. “If the government sees telecom facilities as part of the important infrastructures in Hong Kong, it must require telcos to have DR measures.”
Analyst: Multiple issues that might plague SmarTone service
IDC’s research manager Alex Chau, however, doubts that a power failure was the only reason behind the incident.
SmarTone might have a poor contingency plan, according to Chau. “A UPS (uninterrupted power supply) lasts two hours,” he said. “It’s a sign of problematic contingency planning if a telco can't fix the issues within that window.”
A corrupted database could also delay service resumption. According to Chau, a network can usually restart in several hours after an outage. But an operator might want to keep its network down if an outage results in a corrupted database that makes billing a tall order, he noted. "In particular, an operator won't able to charge its pre-paid customers because their usage requires real-time monitoring," Chau said.
Network upgrade with newly purchased equipment -- usually done during holidays when traffic volume is low -- might be another cause of the service disruption, Chau noted.
Another possible cause of the incident, Chau pointed out, is the operator's long-term cost reduction measures. “SmarTone invested sparsely in its infrastructure in the past few years, without bidding for a 4G license and adding capacity to its 3G network. Such cost reduction effort can do damage to network stability” he said.
Sheila Lam contributed to this report