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Seoul’s Telecom Outage Highlights Need for Redundancy in Connected World

In this Sept. 8, 2016 photo, a Samsung Electronics' Galaxy Note 7 smartphone is displayed at the headquarters of South Korean mobile carrier KT in Seoul, South Korea.
In this Sept. 8, 2016 photo, a Samsung Electronics' Galaxy Note 7 smartphone is displayed at the headquarters of South Korean mobile carrier KT in Seoul, South Korea.

Residents in Seoul discovered how fragile their telecommunications system was this past weekend when a fire disrupted service for millions. The government and the provider vowed to implement changes to avoid a repeat of the event, but the system failure demonstrated a need for greater redundancy and preparation for future natural and technological disasters.

The fire affected customers of KT, the nation’s second largest telecommunications company. They found themselves unable to make calls, access the internet, complete ATM or credit card transactions, and watch television. Local media also reported an elderly woman died when she fell ill and her husband wasn’t able to reach emergency services during the service outage.

Lee Manjong, chairman of the Korean Association for Terrorism Studies and professor of the department of Law & Police at Howon University, told VOA that while it is nearly impossible to prevent widespread system outages, certain steps can be taken to avoid catastrophic failures.

“It is necessary to split the public safety net (fire, medical, and police emergency services) and make system backups (redundancies) compulsory,” he said.

Following the blaze, South Korea’s minister of Science and ICT (Information, Communications, and Technology), You Young-min, spoke to the CEOs of South Korea’s three major communication companies (SK Telecom, KT, and LG U+) to discuss their backup plans.

You said the companies “need to swiftly change their contract clauses on compensation issues and also need to come up with plans that would reroute traffic if such accidents, which shouldn’t happen again, happen.”

When asked for specifics on what steps the government planned on taking to prevent a similar event in the future, the ministry declined to offer specifics, stating that responsible parties would prepare fire prevention measures this year and set up a task force to implement recommendations.

Local broadcaster MBC also reported that telecommunication companies and the government held a 20-minute virtual natural disaster drill in May to simulate a system outage, but the simulation proved to be ineffective in real-world situations.

Interconnected services

The Seoul fire and resulting system outage demonstrated how interconnected services are in the 21st century.

“If a network is down, then it affects other networks such as finance, power, energy, and railway,” said Lee.

He said there are multiple ways the electronic infrastructure can be paralyzed. This includes physical damage, natural disasters, and cyber attacks. However, Lee notes disruptions caused by cyber incursions are more effective.

“Cyber attacks are more efficient as they can take place without access to the physical location of the target,” he said.

According to Lee, this is because the government is able to secure physical sites, so cyber-warriors choose “soft targets” connected through the Internet.

A distributed denial-of-service (DDos) attack could be launched from the Internet and attack telecommunication networks. This type of attack floods a computer network with incoming data packets and overwhelms the system, effectively shutting it down. Lee said such attacks on telecom systems could wreak havoc and paralyze communication.

He cautioned that a successful cyber attack on South Korea’s technological infrastructure could yield “unimaginable” damage because of the country’s reliance on networked services.

Fire and recovery

Saturday’s fire struck an underground facility of KT, destroying telephone lines and fiber optic cables, taking about 10 hours to suppress.

Seoul authorities rate facilities on a scale from A to D. Buildings rated A, B, or C must have adequate fire prevention systems installed, while those receiving a D rating do not.

KT’s Ahyeon facility, where the fire took place, was one of 27 D-rated facilities belonging to the company. As such, fire scene investigators found there were no fire detectors or sprinkler system installed at the Ahyeon facility and only a single fire extinguisher present.

South Korea’s other telecommunication carriers utilize over 800 similar facilities throughout the country, none of which are required to have fire detection equipment or sprinklers installed.

Lee said government regulations must be altered to bridge the gaps to ensure that such facilities are required to have redundant services elsewhere in the event of a natural disaster or cyber attack.

Estimates are the blaze resulted in about $7 million in property damage. KT has announced it would compensate affected customers by awarding them a free month of service for their inconvenience. KB security expects that amount to total about $27.5 million.

In a text message to customers, KT said it was “deeply sorry for the inconvenience. We will adopt preventive measures such as safety inspections… to avoid a recurrence.”

Seoul officials told VOA the cause of the fire remains unknown and the investigation to determine its source could last a month.

Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.