This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Jay Cadman, SVP Enterprise, IQGeo
Over time, superfast broadband has gone from being seen as a luxury to an essential service for social wellbeing and economic prosperity. The pandemic created an increased need for this level of connectivity as workforces became dispersed, and with discussions surrounding the ‘sixth generation’ of broadband cellular networks increasing, it is clear that it will continue to be a key priority for society.
However, this ever-advancing technology is still susceptible to common threats. Higher frequency radio signals, such as those used by 5G, are more sensitive to adverse weather interference while underground water leaves fiber cables vulnerable to damage. The past year alone saw cyclones, heatwaves, and flash floods across the globe. Coupled with the growing threats to cyber-security, telecom operators are facing a more distributed, fluctuating, and unpredictable threat landscape than ever before.
Achieving resilience across the sector requires a comprehensive understanding of infrastructure both above and below the ground. This means mobile and fixed connectivity networks, operating with a combination of cables and radio waves, need to be managed as one interconnected ecosystem. Location and common vulnerabilities will be crucial data points for planners in order to act quickly and ensure resilience is maintained. Take for example 2018’s Hurricane Michael, which caused major damage to fiber-optic cables in Florida. The event crucially also provided a key lesson in understanding how natural disasters interact with the physical and metaphysical world.
Data gaps are jeopardizing progress
A lack of data regarding legacy infrastructure creates major silos telcos often grapple with. Many are reliant on systems that fail to capture live insights and are forces to make decisions using data that can be hours out of date. This data is often not even documented by smaller operators, and those that do cannot easily share their data with other organizations to help combat common hazards and risks. Many networks do not link their data with location, so any hazards recorded are meaningless when taking a complete view of the network. Furthermore, data is rarely held in an accessible format for field workers or contractors that are responsible for troubleshooting network issues.
Operators need comprehensive up-to-date, location-based information on fiber networks in order to prioritize services and upgrades as necessary. Likewise, without accurate above-ground data operators are unable to foresee how local weather might affect physical equipment.
Resilience is key
Regardless of the location of physical infrastructure, all fixed and mobile networks will need to be managed as an interconnected ecosystem. Creating a resilient network will require a holistic overview of the plant and source of potential threats, as well as a history of threats both overground and underground. The key to overcoming this obstacle is the ability to combine data from across the network and infrastructure, including adopting geospatial information, captured data from employee smartphones, and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors while matching this with the exact location of every issue anywhere in the network.
Adopting platforms that are open and capable of integrating with sources from outside a network is imperative to sharing information with other operators and local authorities when needed. This also allows network data to be merged with relevant hazard intelligence such as local weather reports.
Outlined below are four considerations for telecoms companies aiming to create more resilient networks.
- Know your current network
For companies to gain an overview of their current network scope, a good place to start is performing an audit of current data and system capabilities. This can provide insight into different ways of streamlining operations to improve network resilience. When Canadian telecoms company TELUS audited its business technology, the findings showed that teams were using different software to manage and monitor the network, leading to isolated data and fragmented decision making.
Rather than having a ‘disaster response’ strategy, operators must be proactive in assessing and mitigating common threats, which first requires a comprehensive understanding of the network in order to ensure assets are properly maintained. Unfortunately, many operators lack this precise, bespoke insight and therefore have an incomplete understanding of their operational infrastructure. Full and up-to-date data is key to achieving resilience and this can only truly be provided with open, integrated network technology. Field workers’ mobile devices must work in tandem with network asset sensors and geospatial data to provide detailed and location-centered information rather than disjointed applications.
- Keep asset management and maintenance up to date
Here too, integrating data is vital to success. The development of a proactive, rather than reactive, network management strategy is reliant on the ability to recognize hazards and manage their risk. Up-to-date integrated data enables telecoms companies to acknowledge vulnerabilities and put in place proactive programs before they present further risk. If an incident does occur, the integration of geospatial data along with on-the-ground workers and field sensors will locate hazard fast, and enable engineers to efficiently create active response strategies.
- Test your software and systems
Natural disasters and adverse weather are not the only threats to a network’s performance: cyber threats and IT outages are additional dangers operators need to manage. To strengthen networks against potential failures, operators can deploy critical security and existing applications into a redundant cloud service to duplicate information so that there is no single point of failure. Systems need to be tested regularly to safeguard operational procedures and ensure they are robust enough to manage potential incidents. The same is true for people: IT teams and field crews need to feel confident in their procedures to maintain the network and are receiving frequent and regular training and review.
- Have a strategy for incident response
Increased security and reduced risk can of course protect networks from many operational threats, but there are occasions where problems are inescapable. A comprehensive incident response strategy is crucial to mitigating performance issues and ensuring outages are promptly dealt with. Data quality greatly affects disaster response, so rich, geospatial data is pivotal to effective disaster response.
To outline an example from another industry, when Typhoon Faxai hit Japan in 2019, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) decided to overlay live blackout information over Google Maps to identify the location of damaged sites. These geospatial insights allowed engineers to prioritize those communities who were seriously affected by network hazards.
The threats that the telecoms industry face today will not always be the same threats tomorrow. Extreme weather, cyber-security threats, and technological advancement mean the industry needs to be more aware and tuned into a range of volatile risks that can affect the entire network. By digitizing and decentralizing network data and putting in place proactive resilience strategies, network operators can remain in control. Modern networks are a mix of disparate and complex data sources that manage above and below ground assets, and the integration of live data is key to managing grids holistically as a single ecosystem.
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