In mid-July, TSTTs GSM cellular network fell over
again, tipped this time by a combination of circumstances
that the communications provider made the pillar of a quirky
apology to the nations cellular users.
I began calling for an interview with someone at the company
on Monday of last week, but with the deadline for this column
looming, I accepted the opportunity to have my questions
answered via e-mail.
The official respondent to my e-mailed questions was Trevor
Deane, project manager for TSTTs Mobile Development
Project, but given that his response came four hours after
the questions were sent, readers should have no illusions
that these statements are sanctioned official speak. Following
each response is my own final word on the subject.
BD: How long and how widespread was the GSM collapse? The
perception is of nationwide network loss throughout July
13 and 14.
Deane: First, it must be clarified that the GSM system did
not collapse. The network congestion means the system was
handling calls up to its design capacity and calls in excess
of this had difficulty connecting. Calls being placed on
the network during the period exceeded its capacity by a
factor of four. The congestion lasted from July 14 through
to July 17.
(FW: The company plans to accommodate a million users by
the end of 2005, but if a factor of four kills the network,
then 250,000 users will be the real capacity even after
the upgrade. Or is it? TSTT isnt saying.)
Isnt this really a problem of network capacity? Has
TSTT built a network around a strategy of a percentage of
users being on the network simultaneously with an insufficient
buffer for usage that probably came closer to 90 per cent
during the outage, the kind of use that might be expected
during, say, a hurricane watch?
Yes, it is a capacity problem but not an equipment failure
problem. All the network components were working, albeit
above their design threshold.
Earlier this year, TSTT announced that it was upgrading
its network to serve almost 1,000,000 users. We are in the
midst of that upgrade.
Before the end of the year we shall almost double the number
of cellsites on the network, add a second mobile switch
and introduce high-speed mobile data capabilities on the
No operator designs a system capable of supporting 100 per
cent of users 100 per cent of the time, especially when
there is a high concentration of the subscribers in a restricted
National emergencies and natural disasters tend to stimulate
mass calling events which challenge services even in cities
like London where there are multiple cell companies.
(Still no word on the capacity buffer. Adding high-speed
mobile data implies a vast increase in theoretical bandwidth,
but many of TSTTs bandwidth promises remain vastly
theoretical. Im still getting speeds on my DSL connection
that are far lower than I should from an alleged 256k worth
What happens in a real storm? How redundant is the network
and how much of it goes down if 25 per cent of cell repeaters
Because a significant part of communications infrastructure
is above ground, cables and other plant are susceptible
to flying debris and fallen trees and poles. If communications
links to a cell tower get damaged, the rest of the network
can continue to function.
If the hypothetical 25 per cent is in an area that has a
low population, it means that most people will still have
access to mobile services.
(Sounds like no redundancy in the system, particularly in
high density areas and specifically in remote, low density
rural areas where there is no ready landline access either.
The question during a storm isnt whether the greatest
number have connectivity but whether the people at greatest
risk of being incommunicado can be reached. How about mobile
repeaters that can temporarily extend the range in flooded
or impassible areas?)
Is TSTT planning its network around a drop in its user base
when competitors begin operating?
No, we foresee that the total customer base will grow and
we are designing for beyond that growth.
(Wild optimism, Id say, given that rather severe lack
of enthusiasm people have for TSTTs mobile services
after their second major service failure this year.)
Isnt it fundamentally naive to blame users for trying
to take advantage, en masse, of a situation in which they
might have access to free calls?
TSTT was not blaming users, the company was describing a
situation in which customers could take conscious decisions
to influence the service they were getting. You cannot blame
customers in such circumstances in the same way you wont
blame them if they are caught in long lines at a grocery.
We were merely giving customers information that they could
(Id really have liked to hear Trevor Deane say this.
Out loud, with a straight face. Giving customers information
they could act on might mean issuing an urgent news bulletin
while the crisis was in progress, explaining the reasons
for the system overload and asking customers to reduce their
People are paying for periods of system availability and
TSTT has promised to recompense people for lost access in
the past. When is that going to happen? How long does it
take to figure out a rebate on billings to customers or
posting additional minutes of access to customer accounts?
Given the status of the network, TSTT has a responsibility
to give customers compensation in a manner that will ensure
that the network will withstand the additional demands placed
It would be irresponsible of us, knowing how the market
may respond to additional airtime, to implement a rebate
that would trigger a mass calling event and deprive customers
of properly enjoying the very benefit we gave them. Details
of the compensation will be announced as soon as everything
is in place to ensure a secure implementation.
(I have absolutely nothing printable to say to this. Its
evasion, pure and simple. If TSTT had begun crediting customers
in alphabetical order on a rolling daily cycle, they would
have been done with reparations to the first failure by
My final, final word is actually something Ive said
to representatives of TSTT before. Frustrated about being
repeatedly stymied by TSTT responses to a personal issue
with my phone, I strongly, perhaps even rudely suggested
that the company needed a customer ombudsman.
Someone who would stalk the corporate corridors with fists
full of angry letters and furious phone messages who would
bend the ears of the people responsible for its more appalling
customer service failures.
Until then, TSTT will settle for full page advertisements
full of earnest apologies and grand promises that fall on
ears deafened by cruel experience.