News Analysis

What lessons can be learned from the Vodafone UK network outage?

Jenny Williams

Businesses are becoming reliant on mobile technology, with staff expecting mobile devices to be connected at all times. But when a mobile network suffers an outage, what measures should businesses have so that they are ready to respond?

An IT director told Computer Weekly he is considering deploying dual SIM cards and dividing his team among several service providers after a Vodafone network outage caused "major inconvenience" to his support staff using Blackberry and Vodafone data services earlier this week.

A burglary at one of Vodafone's exchange facilities in Basingstoke on 28 February left thousands of UK users in the "M4 corridor" without phone or text-messaging services for hours. Thieves stole specialist network equipment and IT hardware.

Vodafone says its network control centre and the police were immediately alerted, but a service outage was caused.

Business problems

Internet forums and micro-blogging site Twitter were flooded with complaints from businesses about the outage.

Stephanie Clark, co-owner at recruitment company, Austin Clark Recruit, tweeted, "All of the candidates that I need to speak too [about] interviews seem to be on Vodafone network, which isn't particularly handy I'll be honest."

Some Vodafone users were still experiencing problems three days after normal service was resumed, reporting intermittent service and dropped calls. The technical lead at the Ministry of Sound said on Twitter, "Have noticed that signals been dropping out at random. I toggle between flight modes to refresh it."

Rob Bamforth, an analyst at Quocirca, says the incident shows the risk of using computer equipment for infrastructure. "It's difficult for carriers to prevent, other than to put more physical security in place," he said.

Vodafone is now reviewing its security systems in light of the break-in. "All our sites are protected by high-level security systems," wrote a Vodafone employee in a Vodafone internet forum.

Targeted attack

Vodafone is not the first telco to have been targeted by theives. In a 2008 break-in at a BT telephone exchange in London's Mayfair an estimated £2m worth of communications equipment was stolen.

In the same year, thieves raided a Cable & Wireless datacentre for equipment affecting retailers' websites, such as Sainsbury's. Equipment was stolen from the Verizon Business datacentre in 2007.

Thousands of pounds-worth of computer and electrical equipment was stolen earlier this month in a raid at a Sussex telephone exchange.

Lee McClellan, detective sergeant from Basingstoke CID, confirmed that the Vodafone break-in appeared to be a "targeted" attack, although Hampshire Constabulary says the Vodafone incident is being treated as a "stand-alone" investigation.

Disaster recovery

Dale Vile, managing director at analyst firm Freeform Dynamics, says this is a rare occurrence but serves to highlight a risky reliance upon service providers.

"If big players like Vodafone can suffer outages, smaller hosting companies without the same deep pockets to spend on professional security for its physical environment can too."

"It highlights putting something in the hands of service provider: there is no guarantee. It's important not to take the robustness of service providers for granted," said Vile. Businesses often fail-over to Wi-Fi if their network fails. "A Wi-Fi-only strategy is also no longer sufficient."

Businesses need to do more to build robustness into the architecture of critical applications for field staff, such as the ability to work offline when needed, Vile says.

Connectivity is being taken for granted by organisations, but as staff become more reliant upon the robustness of services to do business, the Vodafone outage serves as a reminder of the importance of dual redundancy and fail-over measures.

At the time of writing, no arrests have been made over the Vodafone theft. The police investigation continues.


Black market

Specialist network equipment, like hi-end Cisco Catalyst switches, have a high resale value.

According to Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst firm Quocirca, such equipment, which when new would cost £100,000, can have a resale value of £30,000.

Although details of the specialist networking equipment stolen were not revealed, previously gangs have stolen IT equipment to order for customers on the black market in Eastern Europe.


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