Wireline Works as Fallback When Disaster Strikes

Nations struggle to regain their footing after the devastating tsunami in southeast Asia, where many areas have skipped the traditional wireline infrastructure and have moved directly to wireless communications.

When the tsunami hit southeast Asia this week, it was instantly a disaster of historic proportions, and nothing could have prevented that. Likewise, when four hurricanes in a row hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, it was a disaster.

The difference, besides the scale, was that in the United States, we had a lot of warning. Companies that planned ahead could keep operating.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRead more here about how companies guarded their IT assets against hurricanes.

But one critical piece of a companys ability to operate is its access to communications. In southeast Asia, many areas have skipped the wireline infrastructure taken for granted in the United States and have moved directly to wireless communications.

In the wake of the disaster, those people and companies without a wired backup are now finding themselves without communications at all.

The reason has been seen in disasters for years, from 9/11 to the terrorist bombings in Spain to the Florida hurricanes to the tsunami. Even when cell sites survive the disaster, they are overwhelmed. And since emergency services get priority, your communications will suffer.

The problem is that companies in the United States and elsewhere are considering abandoning their wired communications for new technologies, including VOIP (voice over IP) and wireless. But experience has shown repeatedly that of all of the technologies available to most businesses, only traditional, wireline communications can be counted upon during a disaster, and even there, its by no means a sure thing.

"Standard wireline is the most reliable," said Joe Tumolo, director of business continuity planning and emergency management at Verizon Communications. Tumolo was in charge of Verizons emergency operations center after 9/11, and he has been responsible for Verizons handling of other disasters ranging from the explosions at Mount St. Helens to the Florida hurricanes.

"Other systems are subject to the loss of commercial power," Tumolo said, explaining that if the power goes out, so do communications unless you have your own way to generate electricity. "Wireline phones provide their own power."

However, Tumolo is not recommending that companies drop other methods of communications. "You need diversity," he said. Diversity requires multiple means of communicating and multiple pathways, including such things as separate service entrances and central offices, he said.

Tumolo pointed out that he uses every means of communications available for emergency operations, including wireline, VOIP, cellular, shortwave radio and satellite. He said he thinks every business needs more than just one means of communications if the company plans to be able to survive an emergency.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here for a column on the shortcomings of tsunami warning systems.

Companies really need more than just diversity, Tumolo said. "They have to have a plan in place to move the people and/or work," he said. "That was one of the problems at 9/11. Businesses in the Twin Towers had no idea where they were going to move the work."

Of course, disasters such as 9/11 or the Asian tsunamis can never be fully anticipated, but there are plenty of disasters—such as hurricanes and earthquakes—that can be. Even though companies may not know when theyll strike, they know they will.

Thats one of the factors that goes into the design of Verizons network, and one of the reasons it has become so reliable. "Survivability of the network starts at the equipment level," said Russ Bykerk, director of network planning at Verizon. "We have stringent requirements for equipment. Theres nothing that gets into our network that doesnt get thoroughly tested."

Of course, a lot goes into the design of the network as well. "Active components dont go into the network unless theyre carrier-grade equipment," Bykerk said. He said that includes a requirement for redundancy starting at the processor level.

The company requires everything from earthquake bracing to meeting temperature requirements, Bykerk said, and then it generates all of its own 48-volt DC power. He said the company uses diverse cable routes and ring topologies to help avoid single points of failure.

/zimages/4/28571.gifTo read about infrastructure lessons learned from the 9/11 attacks, click here.

Tumolo said that in addition to having a plan and the right equipment and infrastructure, companies also must devise arrangements to continue operations—before a disaster actually strikes. "You have to find places to move people and the work," he said, "You do an analysis of systems and applications."

He said companies need to know which systems must be available at all times, and which systems can be down for a while. Finally, Tumolo said, companies need to exercise their plan, to actually try it out and make sure that it works. The alternative is that you could find yourself unable to survive the next disaster.

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...