London — The fire on 30 April at Orange Cote d'Ivoire should send a shiver down the spine of all African telecoms operators. They now operate essential infrastructure and barring Presidential shut-downs, they need to take care in event of "fire and acts of God". Russell Southwood reflects on what happened.
Two things can really cause near collapse of operators' infrastructure and their ability to provide services: fire and cable cuts. In January 2012, we reported on how a fire at the Benin SAT3 landing station cut the country off from the Internet for three weeks. It also affected neighboring countries that were reliant on it
At beginning of this week there was a fire at Orange's Technical Centre in the Plateau district of Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire's capital. Luckily local firefighters were on the scene fairly quickly and prevented a more severe fire.
Nevertheless in these kind of situations, being "half burnt" does not really make a huge amount of difference. Local reports after the fire had been extinguished describe hanging wires and scorched equipment.
Orange Cote d'Ivoire reported that the fire had shut down nearly 50% of its capacity, including mobile, fixed and Internet. According to Technical Director, Didier Kla, 50% of the internet capabilities of the company were affected; also the services of the fixed telephone and the international telephone calls only worked with difficulty.
It also said that rival operators Moov and MTN were helping it honor its international services, presumably for corporate clients. The operator clearly had in place business "fall-over" procedures and said it would be back to normal as soon as possible. Interestingly, General Manager Mamadou Bamba used Twitter as part of its strategy to mobilize its technical team.
According to the government it has been informed that efforts are being made within 48 hours at least, in order to allow "a normal level of equipment operation".
There are no local reports of continuing disruption so we must assume they have been as good as their word.
The Ivorian Minister of Communication, Digital Economy and Post, Bruno Koné visited the site of the fire on Tuesday this week and said:" "We have come to lend our support (and) our encouragement to a very important operator of the digital sector in Côte d'Ivoire. We have seen the importance of the damage... We have also seen the efforts of each other to avoid the situation being more serious". In these difficult financial times, operators will want to minimize even a small number of days loss of income.
The implications of this fire for other African mobile operators are as follows:
Check how robust your business disaster and off-site transition processes are. Only an actual fire will test them but run exercises to check they work in practice.
Create an inter-operator group that puts in place back-up for key services, whichever operator goes down.
Again check with practical exercises the speed of response time for local fire crews and the availability of water.
If necessary, work with the regulator to ensure that there is a well understood emergency code that lays out rules and procedures in event of fires and cable cuts.
Check you have enough back-up capacity in key areas of your operation. Customers will understand that a fire may be beyond your control but will be less forgiving if almost nothing works after it has occurred.
The cause of the fire in Abidjan is not yet known.