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News | Wednesday, 04 February 2009

Continuity of service regulations for network operators not yet in force – MCA

Charlot Zahra

Despite being announced by Infrastructure, Transport and Communications Minister Austin Gatt almost two weeks ago, the much-touted regulations on continuity of service by electronic communications network operators have not come into force yet, Business Today has learnt.
Asked by this newspaper whether the MCA received the contingency plans from all the operators yet in terms of the new regulations, a spokesperson for the Authority said: “The new regulations have not yet come into force; they will shortly be published in the Government Gazette.”
“Once published the regulations will become applicable and enforceable,” the MCA spokesperson told Business Today.
When Gatt launched the regulations on continuity of service during a press conference last February was replying to a question asked by this newspaper as to whether the regulations had been published or not, he said that the regulations had been published in the Government Gazette.
The regulations, officially known as the “International Connectivity (Continuity of Operations) Regulations 2008,” stipulate that network operators should have effective contingency plans in case of a fault in their network infrastructure.
The MCA had introduced these regulations in the wake of the fault that developed in GO’s international connectivity on 6 August 2008, which had led to disruptions to telephone, internet and VOIP subscribers for almost 12 hours following a fault in GO’s first submarine cable in Catania (GO-1).
The MCA spokesperson told Business Today, however, that after a request made by the MCA in Quarter 3 2008, “all the international gateway service providers had forwarded information regarding their contingency plan to the Authority.
“At the time, international gateway service providers were not obliged by law to provide such information to the MCA; they had forwarded such information on a voluntary basis,” the MCA spokesperson added.
Asked to identify the operators that had presented their contingency plans to the MCA and on which dates, the MCA spokesperson simply told Business Today: “Operators forwarded their information in the period late October to early November,” without identifying the operators that had presented their contingency plans to the Authority.
On the issue of whether the MCA was satisfied with the contingency plans presented so far by the network operators, the MCA spokesperson said that the Authority “is satisfied with the level of information that has been provided to it on a voluntary basis.
“It will, of course, continue to work with the operators in question to further refine the level of detail provided in the contingency plans as may be necessary,” she added.
Asked to identify those operators whose contingency plans were satisfactory in terms of the new regulations, the MCA spokesperson reiterated her position that the MCA was “generally satisfied” with the information that had been provided to it.
“It should, however, be noted that the MCA is currently in the process of developing guidelines in this respect and will publish them in the coming weeks,” the MCA spokesperson told Business Today.
Strangely enough, the regulations on continuity of service “do not establish a deadline for the submission of these contingency plans, however the MCA has the powers to set such a deadline if considered necessary.”
It must be noted that the Government and the MCA were treating this policy area “very seriously and so were the operators.
“We do not believe that anyone underestimates the importance of the contingency plans, particularly given the loss of business a disruption would create for both service users and credibility of the operators,” the MCA spokesperson told Business Today.

Past troubles
The MCA issued these draft regulations after on 6 August 2008, a fault in GO’s first submarine cable between Malta and Sicily caused widespread disruption of Internet connectivity, voice and voice over IP (VOIP) services for 12 hours.
On its part, GO operated a contingency plan which consisted in the operation of a microwave link between Malta and Palermo and a satellite link to continue operating international voice telephony.
However, this arrangement was not enough to cope with the high Internet traffic, leading the MCA to intervene with Vodafone Malta, the other company which operates the other underwater cable between Malta and Sicily, to take up part of GO’s Internet traffic on its own cable.
Fortunately enough, Telecom Italia engineers managed to repair the fault on GO’s cable in Catania in time and by 7.15pm on the same day, GO’s services were gradually restored to normal.
Speaking to sister paper Illum on 24 August 2008, a spokesperson for the MCA had announced for the first time that it had prepared these regulations after talks with the operators to reach a voluntary agreement to share their international connectivity in case one of them developed a similar fault in its international infrastructure had not materialised.
“Unfortunately, the agreement has still not been reached. Therefore the Authority has prepared a set of draft regulations to impose obligations on the operators to implement the necessary measures in this respect,” the MCA spokesperson had said.
It had also said that GO’s current contingency plans in case of a fault in its international connection were “not enough to cope with the amount of international traffic, especially Internet, because in such cases, voice traffic takes priority.
“That’s why we want to strengthen the contingency plans in this respect,” the MCA spokesperson had insisted.
Barely four months later, on 18 December 2008, GO’s first submarine cable (GO-1) from Malta to Sicily was damaged at sea again shortly before 6pm, resulting in the loss of internet and voice connectivity.
Telecom Italia confirmed that the fault in the submarine cable had been localised underwater 120 kilometres of cable away from Catania.
The submarine cable is 245 kilometres in length between Catania and St George’s Bay as it does not run in a straight line.
In view of the fact that there were a number of repairs to be effected by the same repair ship in the Mediterranean, GO decided to speed up the laying of its second submarine cable (GO-2) from St. Paul’s Bay to Catania via the Interroute network. In fact, full service was restored in the evening of the 23 December 2008.
Until then, GO had to divert its international traffic on rival telecoms provider Vodafone Malta’s own submarine cable following an agreement between the two companies in view of the contingency.
The same ship which laid GO’s second cable, Elettra’s “Teliri”, then repaired the first cable.
On 18 January 2009, GO announced that repairs on its first submarine cable (GO-1), had been completed, a few weeks after the cable had been damaged.
The second quad-band telecoms operator, Melita plc, is also planning to install its own submarine cable during this year, enabling Malta to have a total of four submarine cables.
The Melita cable will start from Bahar ic-Caghaq and land at Pozzallo, Sicily.

czahra@mediatoday.com.mt

 

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04 February 2009
ISSUE NO. 568

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