There was no calm before this storm

21 Nov 2013

As featured on TM Forum's the Insider blog.

I'm sure you all aware of massive destruction and loss of life from the storm of the century in the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan. What you may not know is what the major telecoms operators did before and after the disaster to keep critical communications up and running.

Lessons learnt from the Haiti earthquakes and the more recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami highlighted the need for communications links to be restored as soon as possible in order to save lives and direct relief efforts to where they are needed most.

We pride ourselves as an industry at providing the comms links that our customers have become dependent on, but in times of emergency, these same links can be the difference between life and death for many thousands of affected people.

I had the opportunity this week to meet with Cesar Enriquez, a First VP EICB Operations Support at PLDT, the national carrier in the Philippines that also operates the Smart mobile network. I wanted to know what part PLDT played in post-disaster activities and how well prepared it was after hearing press reports that relief efforts had been stifled by lack of information and communications in the affected regions.

That criticism may have been ill-directed when the full story unfolds. Cesar told me that PLDT swung into action four days before the storm struck when weather forecasters predicted the storm's severity and had anticipated its path into the Philippines coastline.

Teams were sent to the area with sealed containers filled with emergency replacement parts, batteries, power units and diesel fuel to run them. Existing base stations were stripped down to their barest operational levels and components packed away for re-installation after the storm. This had the effect of reducing capacity in the run up to the storm but proved invaluable in the restoration of service after as the components were in close proximity to where they were needed.

As soon as the storm had passed PLDT was able to determine which base stations were damaged and which could be reached for repair work to begin. Three other networks were also in place and used for the earliest comms links. Microwave and fiber for back haul, the latter a ring design with traversing links that was basically self-healing and able to reroute traffic. Satellite traffic was still operating and 150 covers were distributed to key personnel that when attached to iPhones converting them to satellite handsets.

Two helicopters and one plane were used to ferry teams and equipment into the hardest hit areas as soon as they could fly, then two Hercules C130 aircraft filled with mobile base stations were flown in when the airport was cleared. These base stations on wheels were then deployed in optimum pre-determined locations to provide maximum coverage for people most affected and calling for help as well as critical early relief crews.

Despite the severity of the storm and the damage it caused to all forms of infrastructure PLDT, was able restore 20% of service within 24 hours, 40% in 48 hours and almost 70% in 72 hours. In retrospect it appears that PLDT was not only well prepared it was able to swing into action as quickly as was physically possible. One issue Cesar raised was that free calls to the region from outside, offered by VOIP services like Viber and Skype for humanitarian reasons, were actually responsible for overloading the network and hampering relief in the early stages.

It cannot be underestimated just how big this storm was, reportedly three times stronger than Hurricane Katrina. Anyone seeing video of the front surging water into the coastline and the palm trees bending at almost 90 degrees will know how frightening this was. The pictures of the desolation, desperate people and bodies left in its wake have left indelible images in people's minds and spurred massive relief efforts and donations from around the world.

For the telecoms industry, PLDT's valiant efforts may have well set the standard for others to follow. Any criticism from the press should be countered with stories like this. Let's hope we see close analysis and case studies soon that will help others in their own disaster planning and risk management efforts.

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