When Cyclone Tauktae struck India’s western coastal areas several months ago, it brought mass destruction of property and disrupted daily life in five Indian states.
Despite the storm’s ‘extremely severe’ designation, the damage and loss of lives were less than expected. This was thanks in large part to national disaster preparation plans, underpinned by information and communication technologies (ICTs) and timely preparation by telecom operators.
Waves crash ashore near the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai ahead of Tauktae’s landfall on 17 May.
Image credit: Business Standard, 18 May 2021
Effective disaster management requires timely and effective information sharing via ICTs.
Technology plays a pivotal role at each stage of disaster management, from early warning and mitigation to response, and then to post-disaster recovery and rehabilitation.
Collaborative action on the ground
To prepare for the upcoming disaster, the Indian government had already implemented standard operating procedures (SOPs), whereby telecom operators initiated inter-operator roaming services that let mobile phone users switch easily between networks based on availability.
Priority call routing enabled rescue and relief crews to coordinate with government officials, including in the vital restoration work in Tauktae’s aftermath.
Across the affected areas, telecom operators deployed portable cell-on-wheels (CoW) base stations to provide temporary cellular network coverage in areas where regular mobile connectivity was lost.
On-site diesel and battery back-up were ready to mitigate any power cuts, while coordination was stepped up with the National Disaster Management Authority, the National Disaster Relief Force, and central, state and local governments.
Challenges for operators during disasters
Telecom and ICT operators form the backbone of connectivity across the world. But ICT services can be hard to maintain – let alone expand – during earthquakes, tsunamis or a pandemic.
Natural hazards often damage towers, power generators, cables and wires. At the same time, network congestion arises as people call family and friends, frequently hampering rescue and relief operations.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, telecom and Internet usage have surged everywhere.
During India’s first lockdown in March 2020, telecom traffic grew by up to 50 per cent, while maintenance staff struggled to move because of lockdowns.
Meanwhile, with shops closed, pre-paid mobile consumers could not recharge their credit.
Still, telecom operators maintained the continuity of services and facilitated online recharges for pre-paid users.
By the time of the May 2021 cyclone, lessons from both before and during the pandemic, had made India’s telecom networks more robust and resilient, with sufficient adaptability and scalability to handle demand spikes.
How operators can prepare
Access to robust and secure ICT infrastructure is critical. Putting resilient networks and disaster management tools in place well ahead of time helps to mitigate negative impacts.
The advent of 5G technologies lets telecom networks scale up rapidly, with network function virtualization (NFV), software-defined networks (SDN), and software-defined radios (SDR) supporting dynamic resource allocation amid rapidly changing needs.
Wherever feasible, telecom operators must upgrade to 4G or 5G, as well as educate staff and raise awareness among customers on how to withstand disaster situations, including recharging subscriptions online with mobile devices.
Inter-operator roaming agreements can ensure continuous service for all customers in a disaster-affected area, even if the infrastructure of one or two operators suffers damage. Along with temporary solutions like CoW, operators can turn to satellite-based plug-and-play networks to stand in for damaged terrestrial infrastructure.
Support in the crunch
Disaster drills and simulation exercises must be carried out regularly to inform ongoing evaluation and improvement of rapid response mechanisms.
While any company, agency or organization may conduct internal exercises, larger-scale drills involving a diverse range of stakeholders will improve overall response capabilities.
New Emergency Communications Drills and Exercises guidelines from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and ITU-D Study Group 2 can help countries and organizations plan and prepare. Published this year, the guidelines outline SOPs and define clear roles for everyone involved in network management during disasters.
Staff volunteers on ITU’s emergency telecommunications roster can help to restore vital services and links, bring together key government and regulatory authorities to ease equipment imports, and provide training in the use of satellite phones and Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) terminals.
Robust and resilient ICT infrastructure; regular drills and exercises; and effective stakeholder coordination help to mitigate the negative impacts of any kind of disaster.
As India’s experience after Takutae confirms, it is better to be safe than sorry.
ITU Guidelines for national emergency telecommunication plans (NETPs) and Guide to develop a telecommunications/ ICT contingency plan for a pandemic response can be used for developing tailored NETPS and contingency plans for better preparedness in case of emergencies caused by natural hazards, epidemics and pandemics.
Header image: A man talks on a mobile phone while out amid light rain at Sector 27 road, on May 19, 2021 in Noida, India. Credit: Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images