By Ed King
Billions around the world take mobile phone use for granted.
Over the past 15 years they have become part of the fabric of life – vital for work and play.
But for many UK customers of telecommunications multinational O2 that precious lump of metal and plastic ceased to work this week – the signal went dead and their connection to the outside world was lost.
We don’t yet know what caused the outage – although the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones has a pretty good stab here. But along with the millions of individual consumers and small business who rely on O2, we do know larger companies like Lloyds TSB, Halifax and London’s hire-cycle scheme were hit badly.
Perhaps banks are not especially worthy of sympathy these days – but if it meant you couldn’t pay your rent and were kicked out of your house – which one family reportedly were when Nat West’s system collapsed in June – then you’d feel pretty sore.
In more remote parts of the world a phone can be the difference between life and death, offering villagers access to doctors and farmers expert advice on techniques to boost their crop yields. This reliance will keep on growing as phone networks continue to penetrate the developing world.
As our dependence on technology becomes ever greater – so should questions over the quality of infrastructure and backups that are put in place.
Resilience is often defined as ‘the ability of an entity or system to maintain function when shocked’. It is clear that neither O2 or NatWest passed this particular resilience test, although they both argue they were not shocked into paralysis.
But the knock-on effects of these outages in a world that relies heavily on Information, Communication & Technology (ICT) services run into billions, affecting lives and a state’s prosperity.
A 2011 report from the UK’s Department of Environment highlighted how vital and vulnerable this sector is in the UK.
It revealed that the provision of energy, ICT, transport, waste and water were all absolutely dependent on the supply of ICT and energy. It goes on: “As the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt, interdependencies and their vulnerabilities will become more evident. This may lead to service disruption becoming more likely.
“Combined with a lower understanding and/or lack of co-ordination between infrastructure operators and others, it can undermine the ability to adapt national infrastructure successfully.”
There is no suggestion whatsoever that the problems faced by O2, Nat West or Blackberry last October are anything to do with the weather or climate change.
But there is increasing evidence of the effects of extreme weather on ICT. Take the torrential rain, winds and massive power outages that hit Washington DC at the end of June.
Forbes reports this caused Amazon, Instagram, Pinterest and Netflix to disappear for a few hours – hardly Armageddon but enough to raise concerns over their resilience.
As Mike Barton from the blog WiredCloud wrote at the time: “It’s important to remember that power outages — like massive snowstorms and hurricanes — happen, so smart cloud adopters should take this as a lesson to spread workloads across data centre locations.”
Deloitte’s Nick Main advises major companies on their climate change strategies – and warned RTCC in a previous interview that not enough preparation was being done across all business to build resilience.
“You might think – what would I have to think about in terms of climate change running an office in London….? Well – we’re probably a bit above the Thames here – but not much. We probably rely on the tube system, which is below the Thames,” he said.
“So if you started to get more and significant flooding – the Thames flood barrier can only deal I think with 60 tidal surges a year, and it operates significantly above its original design expectations – so maybe we have to think about what would happen in a flood in London? How would we deal with it from a business perspective?
“When you start doing business resilience, which might be a 10-20 year plan, you need to start thinking about those things now.”
Again – there is no evidence that O2’s outage has anything to do with the weather or climate.
But it has demonstrated how reliant we all are on the ICT sector, and that it is in all our interests to ensure that those companies are not just focused on delivering us next year’s Apple handset, but also a communications network that can adapt to changing times and conditions over the decades to come.