When an American communications satellite recently failed, 90% of the country's pagers - some 36 million units - went with it. Credit card transactions were refused, stock-market deals delayed, and several TV and radio networks went off the air. Service was largely restored within a few hours but the incident provided a sobering glimpse of the chaos that such breakdowns can create. While businesses increasingly reap the benefits of systems that rely on communications technology, how well prepared are they for the day the system goes down?
Not very. 'Companies tend not to ask the right questions about communication system failures,' says Keith Baxter, risk-management specialist at consultants AT Kearney. 'The technology is increasingly transparent, so users only see the results and don't worry about how they are achieved.' This tendency is exacerbated by 'redundancy' built in to communications pathways - if one phone line or microwave link fails, there is another waiting to take over. Yet as Baxter points out, it is dangerous to assume that this will always be so. 'There are critical failure modes - points where all the different pathways meet - and these are a major source of risk,' he warns.
Richard Denny, a director at Inmarsat, the satellite communications service provider, is acutely aware of the need to avoid breakdowns but he remains upbeat. 'Because of the nature of our business, we have unusually high levels of redundancy throughout our network and our back-up systems are tested regularly,' he says. This results in a very resilient system, he claims - even the simultaneous loss of several satellites would not interrupt the service.