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Ofcom Consult on UK Telecoms Resilience and Battery Backup for Mobile Masts

Friday, Dec 8th, 2023 (11:19 am) - Score 3,600
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Ofcom has today proposed to update their resilience guidance to provide greater clarity on how UK broadband ISPs, mobile operators and other digital network companies can “reduce the risk of network outages“. Separately, they’re also seeking feedback on the issue of inadequate power backup at mobile network sites.

Communications providers currently have a legal obligation to identify, prepare for and reduce the risk of anything that compromises the availability, performance or functionality of their network or service. But network outages still occur and the regulator warns that the consequences of these are “likely to become more severe as society becomes increasingly dependent on them to function.

NOTE: The new duties flow from the recently amended Communications Act 2003, supplemented by the Electronic Communications (Security Measures) Regulations 2022 (summary).

Due to this, Ofcom are now proposing to update their existing resilience guidance to provide greater clarity on how providers of public electronic communications networks and services (PECN and PECS) can comply with their security duties under a new framework for security and resilience, which came into force in October 2022.

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The proposed guidance essentially describes a range of practices in the architecture, design, and operational models that “underpin robust and resilient telecoms networks and services as well as more specific measures that we expect communications providers to consider.”

Ofcom’s Proposals

We propose to introduce an updated version of our resilience guidance for CPs, which sets out the measures we expect them to take in relation to the resilience of their networks, as part of their security duties under s105A-D of the Communications Act 2003. Measures contained in the proposed guidance are flexible enough to apply to all types of CPs offering communications networks and services in the UK, while also allowing for continued technology evolution.

This includes:

• Ensuring that networks are designed to avoid or reduce single points of failure.

• Ensuring that key infrastructure points have automatic failover functionality built in, so that when equipment fails network traffic is immediately diverted to another device or site that can maintain end user connectivity.

• Setting out the processes, tools, and training that should be considered to support the requirements on resilience.

The regulator has also begun to seek industry feedback on the issue of power backup for mobile Radio Access Networks (RAN), such as those provided by EE (BT), Three UK, Vodafone and O2 (VMO2). The aforementioned guidance doesn’t yet include measures relating to the provision of additional power backup at such sites, but that could change.

Currently, the amount of battery backup across the mobile RAN varies by mobile operator (MNO), in terms of both the proportion of cell sites that are backed up and for how long. But the impact of recent winter storms and the migration away from traditional landline phones helps to underline that consumers are placing greater importance upon the dependability of their mobile phones and network, such as for emergency calls.

Ofcom is thus now exploring what additional measures MNOs could take regarding the extent of power backup provision (such as batteries) at mobile RAN cell sites. “We have set out a framework for what may be appropriate and proportionate as part of their security duties under s105A-D of the Communications Act 2003, with a view to considering what could be included in our guidance in the future,” said the regulator. But such adding such backup would no doubt be very expensive.

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The regulator intends to consult on all of this until 1st March 2024 and will then aim to issue a statement during the summer of 2024.

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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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23 Responses
  1. Avatar photo anon says:

    I live in the countryside (well, semi-rural) and I rely on 4G/5G for internet (yes, starlink, whatever don’t want it). Being the countryside we often get power cuts as well, maybe 2 or 3 a year to the point where I have invested heavily in batteries and inverters and UPS’ to stay online but we found out recently that our local mast and the next closest one (MBNL three/EE and a Vodafone one) have zero backup power. None. So when the power goes out, the mobile networks go out too. Thankfully we are due to get openreach fibre very soon, but im wondering if they have backups too?

    1. Avatar photo Matt says:

      PON networks (the P in PON) is passive – meaning it’s not powered (active units are powered) – So providing the source has power, the PON network will be up, even if there is no “local” power.

      I live pretty much next to a power substation and when that’s tripped previously during maintenance works, the Openreach link remained active.

      It will obviously depend where the source is coming from, local telephone exchange is close to me (~2 streets away) but still had power (and is the assumed source, rather than any localised kit).

    2. Avatar photo XGS says:

      If your FTTP is coming directly from an exchange there will be extensive backup provided both by batteries to handle the transition then, after a period, a generator kicks in. It takes time for the generator to spin up so at least some batteries are required, however often there’s a fair amount of time the exchange can run on batteries for.

      If your FTTP is coming from a remote OLT, so your optical signal is being generated by equipment in a street cabinet, that extensive backup becomes zero backup. The cabinet loses power you lose service.

    3. Avatar photo I love Starlink says:

      13 hours 29 mins for the Exchange I work a lot in. Then 2 generators after that running on good old Diesel. We have 39 AON switches and the rest PON – the AON ones have their own batteries and generator but only small ones as the Generator kicks on within 30 seconds due to the SLA’s that are in place. I think the batteries can last about 45 mins powering them all.

      The Masts on the roof are all wired into the UPS like XGS says its all UPS’d at the Exchange

    4. Avatar photo Roger_Gooner says:

      Virgin Media, unlike Openreach, has its VHUBs housing the OLTs in the field and typically each has a power cabinet next to them. The power cabinet has a battery for backup but obviously it won’t last forever. In an emergency it has been known for a VM tech to go to a cabinet and power it with portable power cabinet in his van.

    5. Avatar photo Anon says:

      Well, in my experience of Virgin Media across a quarter of a century, their reliability was extremely poor. I’m unconvinced by the the claim they have batteries in their cabs, because they can’t even keep the doors shut on their cabs, and the overall standard of maintenance is grim. I’m just delighted I’ve been able to give that horrible company the heave-ho.

  2. Avatar photo André says:

    Well, by your own admission there is a good solution. Why have you discarded it, out of interest?
    Is it the cost?

    1. Avatar photo anon says:

      Hey Andre, assuming you’re replying to my comment above.

      A few reasons. Primarily i’m holding out for FTTP. But cost too yes. Plus I find that very few people who have starlink are honest about it. They’re like Tesla fans who refuse to admit that the doors don’t line up or that the autopilot tries to kill you and cyclists occasionally.

      I considered it, but given 4G/5G are available it didn’t make any financial sense except for having some sort of backup internet. Actually, we can have DSL here the problem is that we have very old crappy phone lines that are very very long. I can actually follow the path my phone line takes along the overhead wires and telegraph poles for at least 700m before it goes underground so this means getting <10mbit from Openreach despite the USO.

    2. Avatar photo I love Starlink says:

      I can’t stand a Tesla. i think its a horrible car.. But I love Starlink and I am very honest about it.

      If it’s the upfront cost fair enough, but no one can say the kit is too expensive considering you can rent it 30 days at a time for £15 a month.

      But Starlink does deliver well over 200 down and 40 up most days.. and sucks minimal power. Also there can not be a power outage if one sat goes down there are 4000+ to take the lead.

    3. Avatar photo I love Starlink says:

      If it’s the monthly cost.. I meant to say

    4. Avatar photo Ben says:

      “Starlink […] sucks minimal power”

      Ha, very funny joke.

    5. Avatar photo I love Starlink says:

      45w on idle – 91W on download.. my hot water dispenser uses 200w constantly to keep it warm

      No joke at all. If people want to care about how much usage a SL terminal uses -maybe they should get a better paid job.

    6. Avatar photo haha says:

      like you should have before going bankrupt?

  3. Avatar photo Chris Hills says:

    At the end of the day, with the best will in the world, outages are going to happen. The best mitigation is to always employ two separate networks run by different operators (e.g. FTTP & 5G). Even then, it is possible that both networks may be relying on the same section of fibre for a backhaul link. Given that the cable owners are often very secretive about their routes it make it hard for a service provider, let alone the end user, to ensure that their connectivity is diverse.

  4. Avatar photo John Geddes says:

    I asked Ofcom, in a FOI request, how much network coverage there would be 5, 10, 15 minutes (and so on) into a widespread loss of grid power – and they told me they didn’t know!

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/backup_power_duration_for_mobile#describe_state_form_1

    1. Avatar photo RightSaidFred says:

      That is like asking how many people would survive a 40kt nuclear bomb that exploded in a gorge next to the river Blob.

  5. Avatar photo Rr-the-it-guy says:

    Virgin Media do not have batteries on the new networks or if so it’s rare only the obsolete phone handover points from 30 years ago at least locally, I only know that because the cab to the aggregation node was left open (a metal one with key) (brand new) let’s just say I knew the engineer who had just been in it.

    PON is the way to go, at least if it has a generator

    1. Avatar photo Roger_Gooner says:

      For VM’s XGS-PON the only cabinets which are powered are VHUBs, and the aggregation and distribution cabinets are unpowered.

  6. Avatar photo pint says:

    Weather warnings often contain something like mobile phone reception may be lost/affected, and there’s something about 1 hour back up for digital voice connections to vulnerable people, so what happens if the power is off for a longer period of time?
    Powercuts in my experience are either over in a couple of hours, or can last for much longer.
    My local exchange has a generator, that in the past kept the old copper network going for almost a week (you could see the exhaust)
    I would assume the new and current FTTP/digital voice+mobile reception will be just as resilient, although ive got a feeling that this is not the case and with most things in the country nothing gets done until something goes wrong

  7. Avatar photo Jimmy says:

    I immediately balk at Ofcom telling anyone ‘how to do it’, e.g. “you must have automatic failovers”. There are legitimate operational reasons why you might want a human to acknowledge there’s an issue and do some switching around it.

    They should be regulating for outcomes, not specifying how operators should achieve those outcomes.

    1. Avatar photo XGS says:

      The human can intervene after continuity of service has been preserved, Jimmy. Can’t wait until an alarm is seen and acted on for the failing over of power to happen. If there are reasons to modify the usual failover scenario they can be implemented in advance.

    2. Avatar photo Carl P says:

      If Ofcom don’t do it, though, then capitalism will win out and we’ll just continue in the present dangerous situation where millions of people have no phone signal during a power cut, because it’s more profitable that way.

  8. Avatar photo Jonathan says:

    A lot of it could be fixed.wirh natural gas powered generators at mast sites

Comments are closed

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