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Engineering-Wise - Some lessons from Sandy

Wed, 01/02/2013 - 12:28pm
Derek DiGiacomo, senior director of the information systems and energy management program at the SCTE

Expect the unexpected.

Derek DiGiacomoIn the weeks after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Mid-Atlantic region, cable was a whirlwind of activity. Engineering crews worked tirelessly to ensure that critical facilities were up and running and that key telecommunications services would be quickly restored.

While the industry suffered some damage to its infrastructure, the bigger hurdle to service restoration often was simply this: Even in the best of circumstances, in which cable plant was virtually intact, extended interruptions to the public power supply made the rapid resumption of ubiquitous cable service impossible.

With Sandy behind us, it’s an opportune time to reexamine the issue of disaster recovery in cable. The value of advance planning, the need for business continuity and the importance of strategies that can drive the rapid resumption of service should be part of operators’ playbooks.

As operators have rolled out data, voice and business packages, cable has transitioned from a residential entertainment service to an essential service for both residential and commercial customers. Although networks have been hardened to provide more robust services, Sandy proved yet again that there is still strategic planning necessary to ensure our customers have access to information and communication on TV and handheld devices, as well as the instant messaging and social networking that our industry enables during a time of crisis.

Complicating the issue is the simple fact that reliance on cable’s communication capabilities is most crucial at precisely the time that maintaining that service is most challenging. The very disasters that drive a need to access emergency information, contact emergency services, or simply to reassure loved ones that everything is OK, often are simultaneously threatening our networks and thwarting the ability to effect quick resumption of interrupted service.

Based on our learnings with SCTE’s Smart Energy Management Initiative, it’s clear that more attention than ever is being paid to exploring the elements of effective disaster recovery strategies. At our SEMI Forum on April 10, we’ll be discussing how the industry is building on the foundation provided by the SCTE 184 (critical facilities recommended practice) and SCTE 186 (product environmental) standards to ensure the highest degrees of service availability, including:

  • Planning and development of a comprehensive backup system – To fulfill assurances that they can deliver the most reliable service, even in challenging conditions, operators are recognizing the need to develop plans for adequate powering and repair activities. A key element of these plans is the provision for not only sufficient backup power sources to replace needed energy in the absence of the grid, but also the need to have adequate fuel supplies available and the ability to get the fuel to the backup powering sources. In addition, operators should have a “Plan C” alternative in case backup powering sources are damaged or fail to engage.
  • Strategies for expedited repairs and maintenance – A comprehensive disaster recovery plan includes provisions for anticipating and rapidly reacting to outages in the field. One of the lessons of Sandy was that the biggest impediment often was not the outage itself, but the need to clear downed trees or pump out flooded structures to get to the trouble spot. The best plans will evaluate the widest variety of worst-case scenarios and lay out material and refueling logistics to get personnel and repair resources into action as quickly as possible.
  • Triage – In the worst areas, Sandy stretched repair crew availability to the limit, presenting operators with more service needs than could be handled at any one time. It’s important that disaster planning provides the framework for prioritizing needs, based on such factors as function within the system, estimated time for repair, customer service-level agreements (SLAs) and accessibility, so that service supervisors can dispatch crews for maximum effectiveness.
  • Alternative powering sources – As operators develop dedicated sources of backup power, consideration should be given to alternative energy sources that can be used not only in the absence of grid failure, but to lessen reliance on the grid during normal conditions. Solar power, wind power and fuel cells have proven reliability to support both needs.
  • Communication – To provide the best, most efficient and safest repair service, operators need to plan for optimal communications between supervisors and field crews, as well as with customers. In circumstances in which every second counts, the ability to get correct answers or make the best-possible decisions can save time, money, and even lives. Customer support teams should have essential facts that they can use to help subscribers understand and cope with outages.

Sandy reminded us to expect the unexpected. Hurricane-force winds and abnormally high tidal surges presented operators in the Northeast with challenges that seemed more likely to occur on the Gulf Coast or the southern Atlantic seaboard. While these types of events might be more the exception than the norm, it’s clear that responses should be outlined in cable disaster recovery plans.

Finally, it’s important to remember that plans for disasters – for both man-made and natural events – should be continually reviewed and updated to ensure that they take into account all eventualities, adequately restore all of an operator’s critical services and strategically take advantage of the best-possible technologies. Even in the worst of times, up-to-date and accurate plans will help cable deliver the best-possible service for its customers.

Email: ddigiacomo@scte.org

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