Fire Cripples Indian Call Center Industry

A fire at a telecommunications hub in Chennai, India, crippled call centers across the country yesterday, and voice and data service interruptions continued this morning.

Cell phone customers of Tamil Nadu were also impacted by the fire at a Bharti Tele-Ventures Limited telecommunications facility in the south Indian metropolis of Chennai. Cell phone service was restored by 8 p.m. PT yesterday.

Bharti reportedly supplies last-mile connectivity to more than 60 percent of the merchant call centers in India with international private leased connections (IPLCs) to the U.S. Bharti also provides Internet gateways for call centers and more than 700,000 local telephone connections.

Customer service in the U.S. was disrupted as call centers in the Indian cities of Bangalore, Chennai, Noida, Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), Baroda and elsewhere in India lost all telephone and Internet access. Managers of impacted facilities were described by local observers as hysterical.

Line Tests

Bharti sought to downplay the situation and released a statement today saying that all service had been restored and that the damage was minor. However, line tests with merchant facilities running voice programs in the U.S. for found that Bharti’s lines were being cut off at intervals of one to 20 minutes. No circuit was found to be stable for longer than 20 minutes, with average circuit life coming in at less than 10 minutes.

Voice line quality remained poor today. The number of circuits being provided to call centers is also being restricted by 50 percent, so some U.S. clients’ programs will not be run today and possibly beyond.

Although Bharti has uptime guarantees in its service agreements with call centers, no call center has announced that any action will be taken to penalize Bharti for the service outages. However, there is a rush by call centers to arrange for last mile redundancy.

This is the first large-scale service outage reported by call centers served by Bharti. Bharti’s reliability and quality of service are highly rated by the managers of merchant call center facilities surveyed by, and Bharti’s prior service record was a principle reason cited for facilities to not arrange for last-mile redundancy before today.

Bharti Statement

Bharti is backed by Singapore Telecom (SingTel) and New York based Warburg Pincus investment bank, which together hold a 40 percent stake in Bharti. Other investors include British Telecom and the Swedish telecommunications firm Telia.

In a statement released by Bharti to an call center today, Arun Bhardwaj, vice president of Bharti Infotel, stated:

As you are aware that we had a major downtime at our ‘Chennai premises,’ which resulted in most of the IPLC, Internet and NLD link (from or to Chennai).

Our team did their best to keep you updated on the developments but the downtime was much more than the initial ERT given to you. Please find below an initial report, on the basis of information obtained from our team at Chennai (detailed RCA will be sent separately).

We have 2 DC plants supplied by Eltec. At about 20.38 hrs on Sept. 15th, the DC input gland (3600 amps) shorted. There was a burst and we had to use extinguisher (foam type) to put out the fire. This doused the fire but resulted in smoke. When the smoke increased, the Fire Brigade was called to control the damage.

The Fire brigade sprinkled water over the DC panel and broke the windows to let the smoke escape. The drying up of the DC plant and switching on of all the equipment took almost 8 hours and the circuits started coming up from 6.30 am onwards.

The fire in the building not only affected our data customers but complete Touchtel and Airtel customers in Chennai / TN.

We deeply regret the inconvenience caused to you but assure you of our support at all times (in thick and thin). We look forward to your support.

Whether this call-center development will have a major deleterious effect on U.S. companies that use Indian call centers remained unknown.

Anthony Mitchell has been involved with the Indian IT industry since 1987, specializing through in offshore process migration, call center program management, turnkey software development and help desk management.

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