Monday, April 05, 2010

Is there anybody there?

It was a normal Wednesday morning. All around me keyboards were tapped, music was played, the tension level rose and fell according to the proximity of our employer. The phones, normally so insistent, were the only thing to be less than usually busy, but otherwise there was hint of portentousness, no clouds to indicate an approaching storm. At around 11:00, however, I called home, to be met with an engaged tone. Odd, I thought, for my wife to be on the phone to anyone at that time. Then one by one we noticed that the indicator lights on all our phones had gone red for every outgoing line. I checked my mobile and found no signal. Then access to the Internet went down, along with email. We were in a complete communication blackout.

Like my colleagues, my first reaction was - are we under attack? Most of us had been in London on 7th July 2005, and remembered how the mobile networks crashed under sheer volume of traffic. Some kept the thought to themselves; others preferred to share it. Our studio manager was dispatched to find out if our neighbours were having similar problems, and soon reported back that they were. It is hard to express how unsettling this all was - not frightening, exactly, because to our knowledge there was nothing to fear. When you are accustomed to being at the hub of global communication, no more than the touch of a button away from the latest news from anywhere in the world, let alone the end of the road, to suddenly be cut off from all that is profoundly disconcerting. Anything could be happening out there.

As it happened, it soon became clear that only O2 mobiles were affected, and putting two and two together, it seemed likely that the answer to the riddle lay with BT. Phones on other networks were working fine, and we soon learned from a Vodafone-toting colleague that there had been a fire, or perhaps a flood (it turned out to be both) at the BT exchange in Paddington, taking out telecommunication across a swathe of the capital, and even as far away as Milton Keynes. I later discovered that cashpoints had stopped working, restaurants were unable to accept cards payments, and even that police radioes had ceased to function. Scary stuff, and bound to bea blow to local businesses still presumably reeling from the recession.

I walked to Kings Cross that evening and by the time I reach Great Portland Street) barely a tend-minute walk away) my mobile was working fine, so it really is a very localised problem. Nothing more than a bothersome inconvience this time, but it is not hard to imagine something going wrong and causing a real disaster. Time for some contingency planning, methinks.

The word is it should be back up and running after Easter. I will let you know.

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