ALTHOUGH tempting, it would be simplistic to pin the SingTel exchange fire entirely on a blundering worker who ought to have known better.
With 30 years of experience, how could he have forgotten to bring along the proper blowtorch and to turn on the fire detection system before going for lunch?
But there is more to the causal chain, as revealed by the findings of the committee of inquiry that investigated the serious incident that affected 60,000 homes and many businesses.
What has emerged is the disconcerting picture of a market leader deemed "world-class" by experts for developing its core network and yet labelled "outdated" by the committee in specific areas (like fire prevention and detection).
Herein lies a cautionary pointer for organisations known for Singapore-style efficiency - when an assumption that all is going well is pervasive, the greater the risk of being blindsided by the inattention to details.
SingTel's network generally has a high degree of resilience but for various technical reasons, it took days to fully restore services. Notably, the report highlighted the "low levels of collaboration among operators during the fire when compared to US operators".
The combativeness of telcos here has led to multiple set-top boxes, confusing bundling offers, and an unedifying tussle for sports rights. When it also impinges on service recovery, it is surely incumbent on telcos to put aside differences and work out a "coordinated response" to major outages, as the report recommended.
Things can go badly wrong and the public takes little comfort when telcos are fined - like the record $1.5 million levied on M1 for the outage of its mobile phone services in January. Users would rather have the assurance that the overall system is robust and capable of quick recovery, especially as the infocomm infrastructure is set to grow more complex over time.
Another layer of complexity that should be taken into account is the cross-impact of disruptions resulting from commercial linkages - the optic cables burnt at SingTel's Bukit Panjang exchange affected StarHub's and M1's customers too. Hence, it is essential for defences to be better integrated.
Essential safety protocols should be synchronised with contractors too when work is outsourced. For example, smoke detectors at SingTel's exchange were in the hands of a third-party monitoring agent. As their primary duty of care is indivisible, telcos should ensure the equipment, practices and skills of contractors are up to scratch.
Given the critical role of networks in economic and social activities, reliability must be an all-consuming concern. Nothing less will do, because when such systems crash, it is Singaporeans who bear the heavy price of the loss of time, money and opportunity.
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