The snow storm that brought London transport to a standstill, stopped one in five from getting to work, and cost upwards of £1bn, was expected.
The Met Office warned a week earlier that it expected heavy snowfalls. No one anticipated the havoc it would cause, even though severe weather is the fifth-biggest risk in the National Risk Register (see box).
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As the snow stalled transport, websites for transport firms collapsed under service demands that amounted to a distributed denial of service attack. The National Rail website took six times its normal traffic, and buckled.
Not all felt the world was ending. Phil Flaxton, chief executive of Work Wise UK, a non-profit firm that encourages home-working, says, "To say that the lack of planning for extreme weather events is costing the country billions is simply not true. More enlightened employers already allow their staff to work smarter, enabling them to work flexibly, work from home, and work on the move. They will have reaped the benefit of their policies this week."
The transport chaos was a bonanza for mobile phone network operators. Traffic increases ranged from 20% to 73% for voice and text as shivering commuters phoned or texted to change their arrangements.
But getting down to work from home was a problem for some. One firm, which prefers anonymity, found it did not have enough Citrix licences to permit all its staff to use virtual private network (VNP) links to access their desktops.
Even so, it is not going to change its business continuity plan. "This was a once in 20 year event," says the CIO. "But if it happens again soon we may have to rethink it."
Francois Mazoudier, CEO of GoHello, a pbx-in-the-cloud provider, said mobile network operators are now offering competitive pricing and services such as free intra-company switching.
In addition, telecommunications equipment makers are now selling picocells so that firms such as Tesco can set up their own internal mobile networks and hotspots.
These make it viable to ditch the corporate switchboard with all its cables and deskphones in favour of cloud-based switching, says Mazoudier. "The most expensive call you can make now, in fact, 70% of calls, is from your deskphone to the mobile phone of someone in your company," he says. "Companies are throwing away money by not going mobile and cloud."
Scott Snaith, chairman of 50cycles.com, an internet retailer of electric bicycles and a GoHello customer, said when the snow hit, his switchboard operator used her laptop to connect to GoHello to access their virtual switchboard. Once in, she routed incoming calls to each of the 10 staff members' mobile phones without a break in the service or the customers being aware of the change. Outgoing calls went on a VoIP service.
Snaith said he had gone for the pay-per-use system in April when he was looking for a more sophisticated pbx. "I saw an ad in the Sunday papers, phoned GoHello and that was it," Snaith says.
Erik Haugen, sales director at The Licencing Agency, a digital marketing company and a fellow GoHello user, says, "Even if no one had shown up in the office on Monday morning, our customers would not have had the slightest inkling."
Clearly wireless technology has improved the workforce's capacity to work from anywhere. This limited the economic impact of the storm, and frees people to restructure work to boost their ability to make money.
Lots more could be done, as new high-speed technology to be unveiled at this month's mobile communications show in Barcelona will demonstrate.
The transformational nature of high-speed wireless communications should weigh heavily on communcations minister Stephen Carter's mind as he prepares his final report on Digital Britain for summer.
The National Risk Register's most feared risks
- Pandemic influenza
- Attacks on crowded places
- Attacks on transport
- Coastal flooding
- Severe weather
- Inland flooding
- Non-conventional attacks
- Major industrial accidents
- Major transport accidents
- Electronic attacks
- Animal disease