India needs a plan for telecom resilience. Telecom networks in Goa, Mumbai and West Bengal have faced major issues in the wake of power cuts and natural disasters. There may be more power cuts, and there definitely will be more natural disasters. Along the coasts, cities like Chennai, Kochi and Mumbai lay vulnerable to storms that have had time to brew and intensify before making landfall, and here, internet infrastructure is at risk. Unlike buildings, which are regulated to withstand earthquakes, wired and wireless internet have frequently fallen in the wake of calamity.
It’s hard to overstate just how urgent keeping telecom networks up is. Staying connected to cellular networks and the internet has been essential, and one of the key ways in which society has been able to pull through COVID-19 lockdowns. And yet, in spite of this importance, climate and power supply issues, in addition to fibre cuts, remain a massive threat to telecom resilience as internet and telecom companies scale and grow their networks.
Robust networks are important now, not in the future
Cyclone Amphan in May devastated cellular and wired broadband networks alike. In Mumbai last week, an unexpected power cut knocked mobile towers without enough power backup offline for hours, and that too in the countrys financial capital. On Thursday, the same thing happened in Panaji, knocking several Vodafone–Idea users offline in the Goan capital due to flooding in a datacentre over 400 kilometres away in Pune. In 2015, many parts of Chennai didn’t have mobile connectivity from private telcos for days, and if it weren’t for BSNL’s emergency efforts, people may have been without internet for several days. All this is to say nothing of less well-connected towns and cities, where coverage is spotty to begin with.
Making sure our telecom networks don’t fall to disasters isn’t, therefore, a distant ideal; it’s an urgent imperative. As the failures of even the most-wired cities show, our connectivity to the internet is fragile. Cables run above the ground in many places where permissions to dig the ground are hard to obtain; cheap copper lines susceptible to electrical shorts remain the norm for ISPs looking to reduce spending on fibre; towers often fail amid powerful storms; and the wireless and wired telecom markets just don’t offer enough incentives or regulatory push for telcos and ISPs to invest in building lasting networks. Smaller storms and mild earthquakes may be easy to recover from quickly — but what happens after a record-breaking hurricane, or a tsunami?
Requiring resilience is messy but necessary
While the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India would do well to examine this issue urgently, this is a process that every stakeholder needs to be involved in: municipalities need to start taking underground cable laying seriously, flimsy last-mile infrastructure needs to be discouraged, and telecom companies need to be required to invest in the robustness of their infrastructure. This is in telecom companies’ best interests too — while telcos may forgo safety spending to keep up short term margins, needing to rebuild and repair an entire city’s telecom network in the span of days is too great a cost for telcos to shoulder, and for the public to forebear.
Regulation will surely be messy: it may require antagonising an already-embattled industry; it may require telcos to show foresight that their balance sheets may have little room for; it may even infuriate customers who may end up paying the costs. But regulation is necessary, as our networks — however blazing fast or advanced they may be in some places — have already shown they are underprepared to face the kind of significant disaster that will become more and more frequent in the coming years.
The COVID-19 pandemic taught us how important the internet and connectivity is. But more importantly, it taught us the value of making reasonable investments in preparedness much in advance — or face the consequences with nothing but bitter hindsight for company.