NZ telcos may work together to avoid outages

New Zealand's telecommunications industry has spent quite some time over the past fortnight debating how best to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing outage that knocked out most of the country's telecommunications last month.

Telco employees Computerworld spoke to last week were reluctant to comment on the record, however. One network infrastructure specialist, who did not wish to be named, lays the blame squarely at Telecom New Zealand Ltd.'s feet for its determination to "go it alone".

"Years ago I worked for [TelstraClear Ltd.] and we approached Telecom to offer a trade -- a pair of fibers on our network for a pair on theirs -- but they simply weren't interested."

He says network operators overseas regularly engage in such transactions so as to avoid trouble for customers when, not if, an outage occurs.

"To only be running a single form of redundancy like Telecom was is ridiculous in this day and age. You're going to do maintenance on one side of the network at some stage and that leaves you with no backup whatsoever."

Triple redundancy is the bare minimum required, suggests the specialist, unless geography causes too much trouble.

"Kaikoura, for example, is very difficult and you end up with situations where you have your cables running down either side of a road. If a slip cuts one it's going to cut the other too, but there's not much you can do about that."

Alternate networks, such as BCL's digital microwave relay service, are really the only option, he says.

"BCL's network couldn't carry the same level of traffic though, so it was really only emergency calls and whoever could get through on the day."

At the Conferenz Telecommunications and ICT summit, held in Auckland last week, Telecommunications Commissioner Douglas Webb raised the idea of "structural separation" with regard to Telecom's network.

While Webb was discussing the idea of splitting an incumbents wholesale and retail arms from a regulatory point of view, the idea could well have spin off benefits from a network redundancy point of view as well.

BT, the U.K.'s incumbent provider, has announced it will undertake voluntary structural separation, spinning off its wholesale division with its 30,000 staff and £4 billion in annual sales.

InternetNZ's acting president, David Farrar, says telcos do need to work together at a technical level to avoid such problems. "They do need to cooperate and peering is one easy way of mitigating the risk of having all your eggs in one basket."

Farrar says business customers should also make changes following the outage. "Organizations such as the Stock Exchange really do need to have more than one connection. The .nz registry, for example, has dual connections plus dual locations, one in Wellington and one in Auckland, so if there is a major problem we can at least keep our end up." Farrar points to the island nation of Niue which has dual international connectivity, one pipe to the US and one to New Zealand, with a population of only 12,000.

The chair of the Telecommunications Carriers' Forum, Malcolm Alexander, says he will raise the issue at the next board meeting to see if the carriers can't undertake better ways to work together on such matters in the future. The Minister of Communications and IT, David Cunliffe, says in a letter to Computerworld that he will be raising the matter with the TCF to see what can be done in future.

TelstraClear's new chief executive, Allan Freeth, says during the recent Telecom outage he had regular discussions with Telecom's COO, Simon Moutter, to try to work together better. Freeth hopes that will be the start of a new working relationship that should help the telcos' customers avoid such outages in future.

Meanwhile Radio New Zealand last week announced it will begin offering a range of on-demand and simulcast services on the internet and will make use of the peering exchanges in Wellington, Palmerston North and Auckland to deliver traffic. ISPs that don't peer, like TelstraClear's ClearNet and ParadiseNet and Telecom's Xtra, will have the traffic delivered from a US server with lower-quality audio.

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