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Broadband ISPs and Ofcom UK Respond to Winter Blackout Fears

Tuesday, Aug 30th, 2022 (12:01 am) - Score 13,664
triangular sign power outage in the city.

The news media has recently been full of scare stories that warn of electricity “blackouts” and “energy rationing“, which they claim could potentially last for several days during the depths of winter. But if the worst were to occur, then how would broadband ISPs and mobile operators’ cope. We investigate.

According to various reports (e.g. Bloomberg, The Independent), the Government’s “reasonable worst-case scenario” under their Emergency Energy Plans could occur if there’s an electricity capacity shortfall, such as one totalling about a sixth of peak demand (even after emergency coal plants have been activated). In theory, this might result in power outages that last several days, possibly during January 2023.

Such an event, reports suggest, might occur if current challenges (e.g. constraints on the supply of gas and storage) were to combine with other problems, such as the risk of reduced electricity imports from Europe (e.g. France and Norway) and below-average temperatures. Some of France’s nuclear power plants are already out of action for various reasons, and the issues around gas supplies should, by now, need no further explanation (gas is also used to create a chunk of our electricity).

At present, there’s a big question mark over whether the recent reports should be viewed as scaremongering, despite admittedly being based on some very real challenges and problems within the UK and European energy markets. However, the Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has been clear that such reports are “wilfully misleading” and “not something we expect to happen.”

A BEIS Spokesperson said:

“We are not dependent on Russian energy imports, unlike Europe, with access to our own North Sea gas reserves, steady imports from reliable partners, the second-largest LNG port infrastructure in Europe and a gas supply underpinned by robust legal contracts, meaning households, businesses and industry can be confident they will get the electricity and gas they need.”

Equally, energy rationing – if it did occur – is more likely to hit non-essential services first, such as libraries, railway stations and other public buildings (you can of course argue about what is and is not “essential“). Nevertheless, few people trust what the government says these days or their often optimistic predictions, and it is thus not unreasonable to explore the question of how the telecoms industry would respond to a major disruption in energy supplies.

The current situation

Many of those reading this article today will have only ever experience fairly brief, and often more localised, periods of disruption to their gas or electricity supplies (the gas network is normally fairly dependable) – excluding any problems created within the home (tripped fuses etc.). Such outages tend to last for between a few minutes and a few hours, although serious infrastructure damage may last for days or even longer.

Experiences can also vary, depending upon where you live. For example, the rural home where yours truly used to live typically experienced around 5-6 power outages a year (i.e. those we actually noticed) and they often took longer to resolve (lasting at most for several hours or sometimes 1 day+). By comparison, our current home is in a suburban area, where outages occur maybe once or twice a year and are usually only very brief.

Short power outages, as well as those that are more localised, are generally a manageable annoyance – we expect them to happen. Most network operators will also have backup generators for their key data and exchange sites. Similarly, you can often find battery or UPS backup systems inside related street cabinets or mast sites for local access connectivity, which will typically last for several hours.

However, experiences do vary, and we don’t yet have much information on how every single operator is positioned to respond. But, without naming anybody, some networks may not have invested as much time and effort as others into securing resilience within their power supply, which might show up if there were to be a more serious wide-scale disruption to the supply.

The impact of a major outage

Any major and protracted national or regional disruption to the mains supply would be an altogether different challenge from what the country is familiar with, which is something the United Kingdom hasn’t really experienced since the 1970s. The last time such things occurred also came before the advent of modern broadband internet and mobile services – something we’re now all very dependent upon.

History shows that countries tend not to be very good at adapting to major risks, until one punches them squarely in the face, which was well illustrated by the prior financial crisis and the recent COVID-19 pandemic. The risk is thus that telecoms operators, which have become comfortable with the dependability of key energy supplies, might struggle to respond (i.e. not enough resources to keep everything powered, such as due to a lack of batteries, limited fuel stocks or poorly maintained generators).

Not to mention that many homeowners may not have analogue phone handsets as a backup or could be using modern full fibre or all-IP based broadband connectivity without a battery backup, which would leave them exposed regardless of whether their network provider is able to stay online. This could create a dangerous situation in some areas (e.g. mobile notspots), due to the loss of access to emergency services (999).

NOTE: See our article on ‘Solutions for Battery Backup of Fibre Broadband and VoIP Phone‘ for more info.

Ofcom is at least being mindful of this risk (here), even if they don’t seem to be terribly pro-active in tackling it (more on that later). All of this is before we even consider the impact on other things, such as food storage, cooking, heating etc. But our focus on this site is centred around the digital connectivity side.

What does the industry say?

The UK Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) told ISPreview.co.uk that there had been no formal engagement with telecoms operators by the government over the issue of energy rationing. But Mobile UK said that mobile operators were engaging with the Government and the wider energy sector on this, although they had nothing further to add.

A Spokesperson for the ISPA said:

“Telecoms is a resilient sector and operators have different kinds of backup systems in place for good business practice or regulatory requirements. Industry will continue to monitor developments in this area.”

A Spokesperson for the Mobile UK said:

“Mobile network infrastructure has built-in resilience to cover temporary power outages with extended backup systems for critical sites, including rapid response teams. The industry is working closely with the Government and the energy sector to explore further measures in the face of changing requirements driven by issues such as climate change.”

However, sources in a couple of major network operators did suggest that Ofcom are looking at the possibility of helping energy providers to prioritise telecoms businesses over other businesses (i.e. quicker repairs) during major disruptions, such as those caused by storms. At present this doesn’t happen and would be hard to do, given how many network operators exist. But in any case, the details are currently vague.

In keeping with that, some telecoms operators (e.g. BT / Openreach) have already developed a process whereby Distribution Network Operators (DNO) are alerted to power failures at both exchange sites and street cabinets, which could lead to quicker decisions on power restoration.

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Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
23 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Evad says:

    Judge for yourselves

    https://www.nationalgrideso.com/document/264521/download
    https://www.nationalgrid.com/gas-transmission/document/140316/download

    Hopefully there will be an updated report closer to Winter 22/23

    Some of us reading this article today will have experienced the Winter of Discontent V1, and hope Winter of Discontent V2 does not materislise.

    BTW I lost power for three days a few years back, trusy old jenny rator saved the day.

  2. Avatar photo Winston Smith says:

    National Grid appear to be working on the assumption that there will be interconnector in-flows to the UK at peak times due to price differential. However the relevant governments may legislate to give priority to their own consumers at such times.

  3. Avatar photo Burble says:

    Us apprentices where looking forward to a three day week, but the government decided we worked for a ‘esential industry’ ☹️
    So working as normal, but going home to power cuts, still like many we had a coal fire so at least we kept warm, or at least as warm as we normally where.

  4. Avatar photo John says:

    The World Economic Forum’s agenda of poverty has already caused mass starvation in Sri Lanka with their version of Socialism. It will now cause blackouts around the EU (and the UK by extended incompetence)

    Putin is not an excuse. Many politicians, such as Donald Trump, have called out the overt dependence on Russian energy but the ones especially in Germany have ignored the signs, just as they have been ignoring the signs of buying critical infrastructure from the Chinese Communist Party. Given Germany’s voting past, hopes are very low

    The ones who a year ago were filling up plastic bags with fuel and got it way before the inflation really kicked in were branded as crazy and selfish but they were right

    1. Avatar photo Anon says:

      > The World Economic Forum’s agenda of poverty has already caused mass starvation in Sri Lanka with their version of Socialism. It will now cause blackouts around the EU (and the UK by extended incompetence)

      Years and years of crazy spending and populism… I guess you also blame Sri Lanka’s decision to stop using chemical fertilisers on the World Economic Forum? lol.

      > The ones who a year ago were filling up plastic bags with fuel and got it way before the inflation really kicked in were branded as crazy and selfish but they were right

      Diesel/Gasoline goes bad after just a few months (3-6)… so not only they were wrong, but they’re also ignorant.

  5. Avatar photo John says:

    Where I live we have power often and because of that our Internet goes down because of no power to router if I got a ups for the router still would have no Internet because bt does not use ups in their cabs. We also have no mobile service because they also have no ups. Worse case all get ups a generator and use starlink.

    1. Avatar photo Anon says:

      Openreach do use batteries in their FTTC cabs

    2. Avatar photo Ivor says:

      starlink power consumption is hilariously high though, a nice chunk of the generator’s output will be needed just for that

      as has been said, Openreach cabs are battery backed, they have to be since they are now part of offering a landline service for those who have gone to digital voice or similar services. If you have Openreach FTTP its even better, since there is generally no powered equipment between you and the exchange

    3. Avatar photo Alex says:

      But apparently they are planning to run Starlink directly to mobile phones somehow.

      I’m looking forward to the technical documents on exactly how the heck that is going to be possible, especially as it claims to use their existing radios and tiny antennas.

  6. Avatar photo Evad says:

    @Anon
    But for how long?, when I last peeked inside a dslam I saw a lot of electronics.
    Also re FTTP, how long will the exchange batteries last?
    Further more will oldies on just digital phone service be supplied with battery backed-up OTN’s?
    I was told by an OR engineer that the entire exchange functions would be moved to the FTTC cabinets, not sure if was true.

    1. Avatar photo JohnW says:

      Exchanges have generators with fuel to last days, which can be replenished.

    2. Avatar photo Alex says:

      A lot of exchange functions will be moved to the cabinets, if you’re a smaller exchange.

      The idea is that once ADSL and POTS (landlines) are removed from the exchange, you only need a few headend exchanges with all the fibre running to those.

      For most of the country that will also mean moving to FTTP, where cabinets are not usually required either. So it will be easier to maintain during a power cut as all you need is to power those few headend exchanges, then its up to end users to keep their end powered.

      The FTTP ONTs that Openreach are using right now use around 1-2W, very easy to keep powered up. Although obviously you need to power your router too which will be more like 12W+. Though with a cheap 12V UPS you should get many hours out of that.

      Its a shame router manufacturers aren’t thinking about this. A router with a built-in UPS run off cheap NiMH AA batteries could run for quite a while and be easier to maintain than a UPS. Some early DECT phone systems used to have backup batteries in the base station, but it seems nobody cares about that sort of thing any more, its assumed mains power will never fail.

  7. Avatar photo Evad says:

    @JohnW
    Is this standard at all exchanges?
    Are the generators auto started in the event of a power failure?

  8. Avatar photo pintx says:

    The problem with this country is that nothing happens until something happens .

    Much as it would be an issue , if we were to have power issues this winter and possibly even longer multi day power cuts having them now may be better than a future failure when things such as FTTP are fully rolled out .
    Thats assuming that people have wired corded phones plugged in , and are not reliant on cordless phones with their mains powered base stations

    1. Avatar photo Evad says:

      Is it not the case that in the event of a power failure, even with FTTP and its electrical backup?,
      the OTN is used to provide voice (999 calls etc) which requires power.
      This was discussed on IspReview recently.
      Do mobile base stations have backup ups system?
      Does Raynet have a backup UPS system?
      I assume (hopefully) that our emergency services have reliant systems, but its no use if the public cannot contact them.
      The issues that concern me are
      Reduced inter connector availability from our EU friends.
      Lack of gas storage.
      Simultaneous power generation failure.
      Having been in a disaster relief situation, rapidly you realise that no thought of a Plan B.

    2. Avatar photo Alex says:

      This is what is annoying about the direction Openreach/BT have gone.

      The early FTTP ONTs had digital voice built-in and battery backup using cheap NiMH batteries, so easy to maintain for customer. But they decided they didn’t want to run their own POTS service any more so standard VoIP over the Internet has become the way to go, with the added complexity of needing to power a router with VoIP support, or a router AND a VoIP phone/base station, and your ISP needs to stay online.

      Maintaining an independent VoIP service run on its own dedicated network would have been a lot more reliable, as they could have powered down everything else during prolonged outages.

      For people who only want a landline for emergencies, the old system was much better.

  9. Avatar photo finaldest says:

    Come winter the least of our worries will be broadband connectivity once the populous start destroying stuff while protesting at the government. The green agenda orchestrated by the WEF are to blame for all this mess. I don’t have a UPS solution at home anyway and mobile will be more reliable unless this also went down.

    The BBC somewhat predicted this scenario with surprising accuracy in a 2003 mockumentary titiled “If the lights go out” and defiantly worth a watch. Its on YouTube if interested.

    1. Avatar photo Callum Precious says:

      “If The Lights Go Out” is a 2003 dramatised documentary produced by the BBC.

    2. Avatar photo An Engineer says:

      It was indeed worth a watch: thank you.

      Noteworthy there was no blame placed on renewables: all about the reliance on fossil fuels, reliance on imported sources and shortcomings in having a free market for energy.

      Think it’s fairer to put the blame on a combination of lack of gas storage, failure to invest in nuclear, privatisation, and placing energy security secondary to profit.

      We’re not even running 4.8 GW of nuclear right now. We’re burning both gas and coal in order to export the electricity.

      Still clearly the blame lies with the Illuminati under their new title: WEF. There’s always someone else to blame it seems when the root cause is our home-grown incompetence, cynical politicking, decade-long projects don’t tend to win elections, and shortsightedness in that a large proportion of the voting public couldn’t care less about 10 years time.

  10. Avatar photo Callum Precious says:

    Should this website naming anyone during the next article within weeks and next time the word “Coronavirus” MUST be mentioned in this article if rewritten.

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Can you add some context to your question, as otherwise it’s a bit random? I should also point out that “Coronavirus” is a family of viruses, while COVID-19 is a specific virus within that group – the one responsible for the pandemic.

  11. Avatar photo An Engineer says:

    Interesting that this topic brought out the WEF loons. Wonder if there’s a particular type of story that calls out to the crazies? I’ll ask Bill Gates through my microchip.

  12. Avatar photo Bob says:

    The situation is a lot more complex. WE are now dependent on wind and the wind frequently does not blow

    Another problem is the National Grid was not deigned around wind. Power station were were distributed around the UK

    Most of the Wind Farms tend to be in the more remote part of the UK and certainly largely away from the South ofg England. The current grid does not have the capacity to transfer much power to where it is needed

    There are plans to build a new power line from the East Coast to London but that could take several years to build. Quite why it could not be run under the sea is unclear

    Another huge problem is battery powered cars. The home eclectic supply was not designed for this and only has a 100A single phase supply. Just about enough to slow charge one EV

    If everyone starts getting EV’s the local grid and subb stations will not be able to cope and will need to be replaced

Comments are closed

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