Software helps telecom providers plan for outages, disasters

Service providers are turning to software tools for weather and other location-based data to determine where to place communications assets to avoid outages and rapidly repair problems

Natural disasters, the weather and other factors that contribute to network outages are usually a guessing game for communications service providers that put their infrastructure in place and hope for the best.

But a new breed of software is on the horizon to help providers and carriers determine the potential impact on their gear when placed in certain locations, whether that means bad weather, crime, terrorism or other disasters.

MapInfo Corp., a division of Pitney Bowes Inc., recently released an Enterprise Risk Management Data Suite for the communications industry, a software tool that uses both historic and real-time weather data, along with political and crime risk data, to help communications providers determine where infrastructure and assets should be located to avoid service disruptions and be best prepared to remedy the problem if an outage occurs.

Christopher Cherry, director of communications industry strategy for MapInfo, said using demographic analysis gives tier 1 and tier 2 providers insight into the risks of putting certain infrastructure in certain locations.

Other providers in the location-based telecom risk management arena include CDS Mapping, ISO/Air Worldwide Corp. and Proxix Solutions, which was recently acquired by First American.

"What is the risk involved with doing business in an area if they don't have a frame of reference?" Cherry asked.

He said providers could use the data to determine where to put network operations centers (NOCs), network control centers and other assets, like cabling.

For example, if weather data shows a high wind risk, providers may think twice about putting above-ground cable in that area. If there is a high flood risk, it may be wise to avoid ground-based assets. Network operations can use the suite to determine if weather patterns will affect the location of a cell tower, and the provider's property management department can use crime risk data to locate the safest areas for company assets while ensuring employee safety and security.

Using live weather feeds can also help providers better respond to a potential outage-inducing event, such as a major storm. Providers can stage equipment in the area, reducing their time to repair problems, restoring service faster. Cherry said it beats keeping the NOC television tuned to the Weather Channel.

Here are the four data sets examined by the Enterprise Risk Management Data Suite:

  • Historic weather includes a natural disaster database consisting of earthquake fault lines and zones as well as historic weather data on the location of previous hurricanes, hail storms and tornados. Communications providers can place infrastructure where it's least likely to be damaged by weather, helping keep networks up and running.
  • Real-time weather offers up-to-the-minute views of weather risk exposure as events unfold, allowing telcos to prepare for potential outages by reallocating assets and securing the network infrastructure.
  • Political risks identify the likely severity of violent political risks on more than 3,800 global points of interest that can be evaluated by political or geographic boundaries, helping communications providers limit liabilities and determine optimal placement of infrastructure facilities and employees.
  • Crime risk profiles offer locations of crime along with loss history. The goal of this segment is to protect human and corporate interests. Telcos can establish safe proximity roles within a radius threshold analysis that determines a site's overall risk.

The what-if factor in risk management

"With network infrastructure and company assets dispersed across large geographies, planning for the 'what if' is essential to all communications companies," Cherry said. "Although we cannot control weather, political or crime risk, being able to analyze data for enhanced management of a company's assets drastically improves business continuity planning."

Dave Sonnen, senior consultant of spatial information at IDC, said location-based information has been widely used in the past by service providers, but using it to assess risk is a relatively new trend.

"Everything's got to be somewhere," he said. "Most location-specific information is implied by addresses and boundaries. Making that implied info more specific makes it very useful."

Not only do location-based services help service providers know where everything is located, but they also add in information and specifics about the elements that location is exposed to, which gives providers a wealth of knowledge.

"Communications providers can take location-specific information, analyze it and determine the best place to put something," Sonnen said. "But it's also about risk analysis and risk mitigation. You want to know about the risks to physical interests. You can develop risk models. For a provider, it's also about how to staff and anticipate the results of a natural disaster."

Sonnen continued: "They know pretty well how to fix damage caused [by disasters and weather events], but they want to crank up their response. Focusing on the location of specific aspects and analytics and focusing on risk information is a great model for telcos."

If a particular area is hit frequently by high winds, Sonnen said, providers can look at what's happened there in the past and design a plan while taking into consideration the risk of wind.

"You start with the design and plan operations around that," he said. "You'll know from history about what it will take to fix a problem, but it's really useful to know what that risk is."

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