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Front Page: NCSC-FI

Functioning of telecommunications networks and services during rolling blackouts

Finland's transmission system operator Fingrid has announced that due to the current global situation, Finland should prepare for electricity scarcity and the possibility of power cuts caused by electricity shortages this winter. An electricity shortage means a situation in which the amount of electrical energy being consumed is at risk of exceeding the amount of electrical energy being generated and imported. The remedy for such a situation is to restrict the consumption of electricity, with the last resort for doing so being the implementation of regionally rotating power cuts, or rolling blackouts. In this article, we provide information on how the potential rolling blackouts would affect the functioning of public communications networks and services provided by telecommunications operators, such as mobile connections, fixed broadband connections and television and radio services.

For more general information on electricity shortages, electricity conservation, i.e. reducing electricity consumption, and potential electricity distribution restrictions, please visit the website of Finland's transmission system operator Fingrid (External link) or contact your own electricity company. Since the networks of telecommunications operators are also powered by electricity, rolling blackouts would affect their functioning as well: while public communications networks are secured against power cuts, in the event of prolonged or repeated blackouts, communications services would start to be affected as well.

If you want to improve your own preparedness, you can secure your own communications networks and devices against power cuts. However, you should keep in mind that simply securing the power supply of your home Wi-Fi router, for example, is not enough to ensure its functioning during a blackout if your housing company’s network solutions are not secured as well: All devices, from your terminal to the telecommunications operator’s network and each service provider’s service implementations, must be powered for the connection to work and for the services that rely on it to remain available. As such, companies should look into how the inner networks of their facilities or their own services have been secured and whether further measures should be implemented. With all this in mind, you should prepare for the possibility that not all communications services and services that rely on them will function as normal during blackouts.

Resilience requirements are laid down in legislation and Traficom’s regulations

Requirements concerning the resilience of public communications networks and services, such as mobile phone connections, various broadband services and TV and radio networks, are laid down in the Act on Electronic Communications Services (External link) and the supplementing technical regulations issued by the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom.

According to the Act, public communications networks and services must be designed, built and maintained in such a manner that:

  • the technical quality of electronic communications is of a high standard,
  • they withstand normal, foreseeable climatic, mechanical, electromagnetic and other external interference,
  • their reliability can be monitored,
  • defects and disruptions that significantly interrupt their functionality can be detected, and
  • access to emergency services is secured as reliably as possible even in the event of network disruptions.

Furthermore, the Act stipulates that telecommunications operators must ensure that communications networks and services function as reliably as possible even in the exceptional circumstances referred to in the Emergency Powers Act and in disruptive situations under normal circumstances. This so-called preparedness is realised by assessing the potential risks to the continuity of services and using this assessment as the basis for planning and implementing measures for ensuring continuity.

Traficom has issued a dedicated regulation on the resilience of communications networks and services and of synchronisation of communications networks (External link). The regulation imposes minimum obligations on telecommunications operators concerning, among other things, the securing of the power supply of devices used in the implementation of communications networks and services, the resilience of devices and connections, the physical protection of equipment facilities and the synchronisation of communications networks.

According to the regulation, public communications network and service components are classified into priority ratings 1–5 in a descending order of priority based on the communications service type, the number of users and the size of the geographic coverage area. Based on these priority ratings, the regulation imposes different resilience requirements for components. As a precaution against power cuts, the regulation requires the power supplies of communications network components to be secured with emergency power supply units, such as accumulators or UPS devices. The back-up times of emergency power supply units depend on the priority rating of the components that they are meant to power. For example, the power supplies of the most critical communications network components, such as centralised backbone network devices that serve large geographical coverage areas and large numbers of users, must be secured for a longer period of time than those of components with a lower priority rating, which serve smaller geographical coverage areas and numbers of users.

Power cuts affect different communications services in different ways

The implementation of potential rolling blackouts is the responsibility of Finland's transmission system operator Fingrid and local distribution system operators. It has been forecast that in the event of an electricity shortage, Fingrid would need to impose rolling blackouts lasting two hours at a time. In the event of a severe electricity shortage, rolling blackouts might affect the same area more than once a day.

As stated above, Traficom has issued a regulation requiring telecommunications operators to secure the power supplies of their communications networks and services against power cuts.

In summary, the functioning of different communications networks and services will vary during rolling blackouts, with basic services remaining operational for at least a few hours. Even properties that do not have fixed emergency power stations can usually be connected to a mobile emergency power station, such as a mobile diesel generator. It should be noted, however, that since there are tens of thousands of communications network components and equipment facilities in Finland, there are not enough mobile emergency power stations to power them all. Furthermore, mobile emergency generators require regular refuelling during operation.

The long-term functioning of accumulator-based emergency power supply solutions, which are used e.g. for mobile network base stations, would also be affected by the frequency of rolling blackouts: the power grid must remain operational for long enough between blackouts so that the accumulators can be recharged. In the event of frequent blackouts over the course of several days in a row, there might not be enough time to recharge accumulators. This could potentially cause communications services to go down faster than the above-mentioned back-up times indicate.

Furthermore, it is possible for the frequent cutting and restoring of power to result in some unexpected breakdowns, which could, in turn, cause disruptions of individual communications services. Luckily, telecommunications operators can detect these kinds of breakdowns automatically and proceed to repair them quickly.

Resilience requirements are determined based on a comprehensive assessment of multiple factors

Finland’s resilience requirements for public communications networks have a long and unique history: most EU countries have no comparable requirements for securing power supplies, for example. In Finland, such requirements were deemed necessary several decades ago and have been developed over time as technologies and usage needs have changed.

For example, in the early 2000s, Finland imposed a back-up time of three hours for the emergency power supplies of 2G mobile network base stations and 15 minutes for the emergency power supplies of 3G base stations, the building of which had just started. In 2012, the resilience requirements were updated, increasing the back-up time of the emergency power supplies of 3G mobile network base stations to the same level as that of 2G base stations and imposing a back-up time of 15 minutes for the emergency power supplies of 4G base stations, the building of which was still in progress. In 2021, the resilience requirements were once again updated, taking into consideration the construction of 4G and 5G networks: By the end of 2023, the power supplies of 4G network components will be secured to the same extent as those of 2G and 3G networks, while 5G network base stations will be subject to a back-up time requirement of 15 minutes. As we can see, new networks have typically been subject to more lenient resilience requirements during the early stages of their construction, with the aim of preventing the requirements from becoming an obstacle to the deployment of new technologies.

The updating of all technical requirements is assessed based on multiple different factors and with the input of the telecommunications industry. In practice, requirements are thus determined based on a comprehensive assessment of expectations, preconditions and consequences. The requirements concerning the securing of the power supplies of communications network components are determined taking into account the following factors:

  • The reliability of general electricity distribution, meaning what kind of power cuts telecommunications operators have reason to prepare for. In Finland, the overall functionality and quality of electricity distribution are very good, and it has been deemed appropriate to secure the functioning of communications networks and services against short power cuts.
  • Public expectations, meaning what kind of communications services are used in Finland and what kind of reliability people generally expect and require of them. With these in mind, resilience requirements focus on the securing of basic services and emergency communications with the aim of facilitating preparedness for consumer-level needs, as consumers do not have the same kind of opportunities that companies do to influence the reliability of the communications services that they purchase.
  • Environmental factors, meaning the environmental load caused by different requirements in terms of the amount of equipment, the conversion of equipment facilities, the renewal cycle of equipment and the need to access equipment facilities. For example, the capacities of accumulators are increased taking into account the ages of networks’ existing accumulators so that they can be used for as long as possible and so that renewals are carried out in connection with normal lifecycle replacements whenever possible.
  • The technical features of emergency power supply units, meaning what kind of technologies can be used to generate and store electricity or how frequently different types of emergency power stations need to be refueled, which affects not only the need for fuels, but the sourcing of field personnel as well.
  • The number of components to be secured, meaning how many sites individual emergency power solutions need to power, which affects their costs.
  • The features of equipment facilities, meaning what kind of facilities the components to be secured are located in. For example, mobile network base stations are most commonly housed in quite lightly-structured equipment shelters, which may not always have the room for large emergency power supply units or floors that can support heavy accumulators. The implementation of emergency power supply units must also conform to fire safety, ventilation, noise and emissions requirements. For example, a mobile emergency power station cannot be placed at a site where third party access to it cannot be prevented or where the functioning of the emergency power station cannot be adequately monitored (places accessible to the public, with children, in particular, presenting a risk).
  • Cost effects, meaning how much the implementation of the emergency power supply solutions will cost in terms of both the initial investment and maintenance. Resilience requirements have an impact on the pricing of communications services, which are quite affordable in Finland compared to other countries.

As the list above illustrates, the aim in the determination of resilience requirement is to strike a balance between multiple different perspectives. To this end, Traficom is constantly monitoring technical development related to the resilience of communications networks and services and assessing the need and preconditions for updating regulations, guidelines and recommendations.

Compliance is monitored in many ways and preparedness is developed through cooperation

Finnish telecommunications operators’ compliance with obligations related to reliability, resilience and incident management is monitored by Traficom. The aim is to:

  • identify problems on time and prevent them,
  • investigate issues in cooperation with operators while ensuring confidentiality; for example, the technical details of different telecommunications operators’ solutions for fulfilling resilience requirements are often considered confidential information based on security reasons and trade secrets,
  • operate in a way that ensures that implemented measures are as effective and universal as possible,
  • focus on the steering and supervision of basic services,
  • operate flexibly so as to prevent unnecessary legal disputes requiring court proceedings and
  • issue a written decision whenever required, which can be appealed to the administrative court.

Compliance monitoring can be regular or case-specific by nature. Monitoring methods include:

  • surveys (e.g. surveys aimed at finding out how telecommunications operators fulfil specific requirements in practice),
  • the collection of statistics (to identify common phenomena and development trends, in particular),
  • the reporting obligations of different operators (e.g. telecommunications operators’ final reports about incidents, which are used to monitor compliance with incident management obligations),
  • written requests for information (for more detailed investigation of individual situations),
  • meetings (for the thorough review of technical details), and
  • inspections (e.g. visits to equipment facilities to investigate compliance with resilience requirements).

If an operator violates statutes and regulations supervised by Traficom, the agency can issue a notice to the operator, obliging them to correct any shortcomings and violations within a reasonable time frame. Obligations can also be enforced by imposing a conditional fine or a condition that operations will be suspended or that neglected measures will be implemented at the operator’s expense. It should be noted, however, that conditional fines are only collected if the obligations based on which they were imposed are not complied with. It is quite common for telecommunications operators to notice shortcomings and non-compliance in their operations themselves while looking into reliability and resilience matters and proceed with the implementation of corrective measures without the need for any administrative sanctions.

In addition to compliance monitoring, Traficom engages in both national and international cooperation with a number of different operators to promote the resilience of communications networks and services. For example, Traficom heads the disturbance cooperation working group (HÄTY) that serves as a cooperation forum for telecommunications operators, electricity companies, contractors and the authorities, helping them prepare for and recover from different types of disturbances. In the event of large-scale electricity distribution disturbances, the working group would allow telecommunications operators to cooperatively coordinate the transport of emergency power stations to their mobile network base stations. This would facilitate telecommunications operators’ joint efforts to secure emergency communications, as emergency calls can be made using the networks of other telecommunications operators in the event that the network of the caller’s telecommunications operator is down. With telecommunications operators being able to coordinate which operator would secure which base stations and the functioning of the underlying transmission system in the area affected by the disturbance, the available mobile emergency power stations could be more effectively distributed to ensure coverage for emergency communications in the affected area.