What Caused The O2 Outage?

The recent 21-hour O2 blackout has been disastrous for the company. A recent snap survey reported in T3 suggests that up to a third of all O2 users are planning to leave the company upon expiry of their contract. It’s a serious blow to the telecommunications giant, which has fallen far from the dizzying heights of being the sole operator to release the immensely-popular original iPhone.

Despite keeping mum on the precise causes of the outage, various sources are reporting that the issues are related to O2’s transition of user details to Swedish technology giant Ericsson’s own Centralized User Database. The failure of the transition left all handsets unable to authenticate with the service – booting every device off the network.

Ericsson and O2’s relationship runs deep – the companies have been symbiotic as of 2009 – but this particular disaster may spell a tricky patch for their professional relationship. Ericsson are responsible mainly for field maintenance and site-switching, so they have a get-out clause to-go: it wouldn’t happen with our kit. They’re already keen to distance themselves – in a recent statement to the press, they named themselves as a “key supplier to O2”, but nothing more.

O2, on the other hand, don’t look to have such an easy ride out of this nightmare. Websites are already popping up offering advice to consumers keen to rid themselves of the contract as early as possible (though O2 have no legal obligation to support this). Enterprise customers, in particular, have a solid leg to stand on for renegotiation of business contracts. But most terrifying of all for O2 will be the loss of virtual mobile operators from its infrastructure.

O2 owns numerous telecommunications masts all over Europe, and leases bandwidth on these to part-owned subsidiaries – such as Tesco mobile and GiffGaff – and numerous other, independent virtual operators. Analysts suspect that many of these operators will now be seeking to either purchase frequency bands for their use outright, or switch to a different network supplier. In one fell swoop, companies could simply switch supplier – taking with them hundreds of thousands of derivative O2 customers.

So how does this affect you, the consumer? Well, it shows the dismal possibilities that exist when all your communication faith is put with a single provider. Even more so, it might awaken you to the reality of being contracted to a virtual operator who ‘piggybacks’ on a physical provider’s infrastructure. Doubtless in future, the technicalities of network relations are going to count more in the end-user decision. Salespeople should start brushing up now.

While solutions like Voice over IP (VoIP) offer communication in the event of a wireless blackout, the market trend towards mobile devices starts to rule it out as an effective back-up. If your mobile device relies on wireless communication (such as 3G or 4G networks) to hook in to Skype – and that communication network is down – you can’t use any VoIP service either.

Short of fax – perhaps we should expect to see a boom in all-in-one printers – it’s hard to suggest alternative ways to survive a communications blackout. If you really can’t abide it, keep a cheap phone with a pre-loaded SIM card on another network in the drawer. Or, just stick with O2. After all, they’re probably the most infrastructure-problem-focussed telecommunications company in the world right now.

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