Because telecommunications are the essential link between commercial partners and customers, the consequences of a failure in either a carrier's business or in the technology itself could be catastrophic.
However, it is not generally appreciated that the demise of a major telecoms provider, such as the collapse of WorldCom last year, has the potential, not only to damage those immediately involved, but also to affect business globally.
The data contained in our computer systems is a major business asset and the telecommunications linking these systems are the "glue" that holds together various sites, subsidiaries, partners, suppliers and clients. Mori, for example, is dependent on telecoms for links between offices in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and partners overseas.
Market research data is sent from the field to head office. This data is then moved within the company or to partners for processing and once received and analysed is sent, in digital form, to our clients. Most business communication is conducted via e-mail or voice. If these telecommunications are not available to us, for instance through a telecoms or technology failure, then we do not have a business.
Computer technology is now, for the most part, very reliable. To be without a major system for more than a few minutes is noteworthy. Not so with telecoms. In the past two years I have experienced: a technical failure with a major ISP, resulting in several days lost e-mail for a number of FTSE 100 businesses; the financial demise of two major carriers requiring a rapid transfer to alternative suppliers; frequent failures with telecoms equipment, with carriers more intent on blaming other suppliers than resolving the problems; loss of GPRS service for more than a week; and lines frequently not operating at their published specifications.
All these have caused interruptions to normal business processes of at least hours and sometimes days. It is, of course, possible to guard against such failures by employing duplicate channels obtained from different suppliers, but suppliers often share infrastructure. And in any case should not our contracted suppliers be responsible for providing resilience?
Mori would like to roll out broadband to locally-based managers and staff but the coverage is too patchy. The company would like to be connected to its field workers at all times to facilitate real-time updates to their samples and return of data to head office, but the coverage and reliability do not exist. For internet connectivity Mori is faced with a choice between apparent stability accompanied by unreasonably high costs, or bargain-basement charges with the constant threat of supplier insolvency.
Despite the fact that we have spent several hundred thousand pounds with our major carrier, until recently it declined even to provide a named account manager. Our supplier clearly does not understand business needs. For instance, during a recent GPRS failure we were at first brushed off, and then told that we would be contacted at the weekend in two weeks time. This is hardly an appropriate response for a business customer with a failure in an essential system.
Last year the mainstream commentators did not realise that the demise of WorldCom could have catastrophic consequences for business at large. Carriers at all levels seem unaware that even a few minutes loss of service can seriously damage a business, and more than a day without telecoms could put Mori out of business.
Telecommunications are not sexy, but they are the nervous system of modern business, invisible but essential. We need to be supported by a telecoms industry that understands its obligations and can rise to the challenge.
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Ben Booth is director of ITat market research firm Mori