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What telecom firms have to learn from the Chennai floods

January 06, 2016 08:24 IST

Residents carry their children on their shoulders as they wade through a flooded street in Chennai. Photograph: PTIAirtel, Aircel,Vodafone and other services were disrupted and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s landlines were the only saviour in many places

Incessant rains and flooding brought Chennai to its knees last month, with several parts of the city being cut off as both power and telecom services broke down. While the calamity touched hearts, as was evident from the aid that flowed in, it also exposed faults in India’s disaster management system.

As in the flash floods that hit Jammu and Kashmir in 2014 and Uttarakhand in 2013, when rescue efforts were hindered because telecommunication services were severely hit, people in Chennai too could not call for help or reach out to relatives and friends.

Airtel, Aircel,Vodafone and other services were disrupted and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s landlines were the only saviour in many places.

Telecommunication companies say network services suffered due to disruption in mobile towers and failure of back-up gensets to operate due to shortage of fuel and flooding of the premises.

Both Airtel and Vodafone claim they did everything possible to resume services at the earliest and extended all help, including deploying their staff with mobile phones on the streets to help people get in touch with their families.

Even so several people were stuck for two-three days in their homes with no contact with the world outside and the disruption in mobile services during critical hours left them distraught.

Now, an online petition filed at Change.org, a platform that allows anyone, anywhere to build public opinion on any issue, has sought compensation from telecom operators for the disruption in service during the flood.

Experts, however, feel the Chennai flood experience also calls for a rethink of the way telecom companies build their infrastructure.

“There are no standards in India to specify areas prone to earthquake or flooding.

Only if there is a standard can telecom companies be mandated to follow them while installing the tower or laying optical fibre,” says R K Dave, a spectrum management expert who is actively involved in disaster management programmes.

Dave says while the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or Trai, has come out with regulation on call drops, it has not yet created any policy on what it expects from telecom companies in disaster situations.

Currently, telecom companies construct and manage  towers the same way throughout the country, irrespective of where the towers are located.

“Trai should come up with different guidelines for telecom infrastructure for laying, operating and managing these towers,” he adds.

Once regulations are formulated for specific areas, the authority should make it mandatory for the industry to follow those guidelines by linking the renewal of licences to fulfilment of the criteria.

Dave also suggests a separate communication system for emergency alerts.

“In the US, there is the ‘integrated public alert and warning system’ that allows the president to address the country and the information reaches every nook and corner of the country as long as some communication gadget is available,” he says.

Experts feel the telecom industry should aim for setting up a priority-based system where emergency calls can override other calls and reach their destination -- irrespective of network congestion.

“This would help disaster management experts to communicate and coordinate better with the authorities,” says Dave.

In addition to this, simple measures like placing gensets and electronic equipment at a height to safeguard them during flooding, as was done in Sikkim after the flash floods in 2012, can go a long way.

“It is time for the government to ensure speedy deployment of integrated disaster management systems, which can help people during disaster,” says Saleem Ahmed, programme head, IAFI Consulting Group which is part of the ITU-APT Foundation of India, a non- profit organisation that works for the development of the telecom sector.

But, he adds, “The question is who will pay for higher investment in fortifying the infrastructure.”

Dave recommends that telecom companies be allowed to use their corporate social responsibility fund to create adequate infrastructure in disaster prone areas.

Image: Residents carry their children on their shoulders as they wade through a flooded street in Chennai. Photograph: PTI

T E Narasimhan and Gireesh Babu in Chennai
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