Storm, rain, thunder, and lightning – not an easy summer for us as the Service team

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An article by Ferri Abolhassan, Managing Director Service Telekom Deutschland GmbH.

Every year we really look forward to the summer. To the long, light days in the garden or on the balcony. To visiting the open-air swimming pool or the beer garden. To cycling or jogging in nice warm weather. In theory. But sadly, the summer also casts a shadow. We have faced this again and again in recent weeks.

Dr. Ferri Abolhassan, Managing Director Service Telekom Deutschland GmbH.

Dr. Ferri Abolhassan, Managing Director Service Telekom Deutschland GmbH.

We've just had the hottest June since weather records began. The temperatures in Europe were an average of two degrees higher than usual. The record temperature of 39.6 degrees Celsius was recorded in Bernburg in Saxony-Anhalt. In the south of France near Montpellier it even reached 45.9 degrees – a new all-time record. Climate change is making itself felt!

Heat hurts people

These extreme temperatures have a really bad effect on us. Our blood pressure rises, and we lose liquid as we sweat. In everyday life, this often leads to headaches, giddiness, nausea, and circulation problems. So, you should drink a lot and stay in the shade.

But if you still have to do sport in this heat, because you've been training for months for a competition, this really hits you hard: during Ironman in Frankfurt at the end of June it was 39 degrees. Just 900 meters from the finishing line, the leading American Sarah True collapsed in utter exhaustion – after swimming for 3.8 kilometers, cycling for 185 kilometers, and running for 42 kilometers. As a former triathlete, I suffered along with her.

Summer time is thunderstorm time

However, the hot weather has a negative impact not only on people, but also on nature: there are more and more forest fires and violent thunderstorms with gale-force winds, heavy rain, and hailstorms. We've all seen the photos of the forest fires in East Germany and the storms in South Germany with some hailstones as big as table tennis balls. And we must assume that this will go on for quite a while.

Because the thunderstorm season here lasts from April to September. And because of the hot air, thunder is most frequent in the summer months of June, July, and August. Two years ago, we counted a total of 443,000 lightning strikes in Germany. Traditionally, the south is affected more than the north. The area with the highest average number of thunderstorms is around Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Upper Bavaria).

How to protect yourself from lightning damage

Always disconnect the telephone and power supply during thunderstorms.

Lightning, then thunder

But where do lightning and thunder actually come from? In storm clouds there are strong winds. "Frictional energy" creates electric charges. The upper part of the cloud is positively charged (ice crystals are formed there), the lower side negatively (drops of water are formed there). If the difference in voltage is too great, a discharge takes place. Then we get lightning. The lightning, in turn, heats the surrounding air up to 30,000 degrees Celsius, which makes it expand extremely quickly. So quickly that it breaks the sound barrier. Thunderclap!

A little tip: When you count the seconds between lightning and thunder and divide them by three, you can calculate how far away the thunderstorm is. If the time difference is six seconds, the thunderstorm is about two kilometers away. If the difference does down to three seconds, the thunderstorm is therefore only one kilometer away.

Developing sensitivity to the weather

Are you wondering why I'm showing such an intense interest in this topic? It's quite simple: since I've been responsible for Service at Telekom, I've developed greater sensitivity toward the overall weather situation. Because thunderstorms, lightning, pouring rain, and floods keep us as the Service team on our toes. Exactly the same applies to our colleagues from Technology. Storms are always a challenge for us to restore normal service for our customers.

I would like to illustrate why this is the case with an example: let's take a typical thunderstorm. Even if lightning only strikes near at hand, it can damage the power and phone network by an electrical surge and harm routers or PABXs. After all, a flash of lightning can run to more than 100,000 amps. Its voltage is even estimated at many millions. Of course, it is always an unsatisfactory situation for our customers if they are no longer able to make phone calls or surf the web as the result of a lightning strike.

Storms often cause phone or internet faults

That's why we use our website, the MeinMagenta app, social media, and even phone bills to provide regular tips on how to protect yourself against phone and internet faults caused by storms: the best idea is to pull the plug and disconnect the devices from the mains in good time. Just switching off the multi-socket is unfortunately not enough. You can still be contacted by call forwarding from the fixed network line to your cell phone. And should there really a fault, it is frequently sufficient to unplug the router for two minutes for everything to work again.

But that doesn't always help. Often something serious can go wrong. Storms can cut off whole regions from the network. As the Telekom team, we are kept very busy then. The phones in the service centers ring constantly. In such situations we receive up to 100,000 additional calls a day. And our technicians do extra shifts to get the lines to the affected areas back up and running as quickly as possible. During storms, we quite often have to deal with 10,000 additional faults a day. That's no easy task – and can also sometimes be quite dangerous.

Proceed quickly, but calmly

How do we react to such a major incident caused by storms? First, we set up a task force and drum up all available colleagues – including those from unaffected regions. In "coordination calls," we then discuss several times a day where the network technology has broken down, which operating sites are under threat, and what immediate measures we can initiate to solve the problem.

Unfortunately, our service technicians often cannot get started right away to clear the fault – even though they would be glad to do that. Let's just take the overground phone lines in forest areas. 

When something goes wrong because of a storm or a lightning strike (we can still remember Hurricane "Friederike" last year), our technicians cannot repair the lines until the fire department and forestry staff have given the all-clear. Our people cannot go into the forest till then. After all, more branches could fall down or whole trees could collapse. 

And even if we do our best to build provisional solutions for our customers, they sometimes result in longer downtimes. Our customers then cannot understand why the incident is taking so long and why we aren't clearing the fault right away. But ultimately, the health and safety of our technicians come first.

It's the same with floods: even if the water has stopped running down the streets, ground water immediately follows when our technicians want to repair "submerged" cables. Then too we just have to wait.
Customer communication is the be-all and end-all.

In such cases what matters is transparent communication with the customers. In the affected dialing code areas, we therefore inform them at an early stage with appropriate announcements. We ring up sensitive customer groups (such as doctors, chemists, and hospitals) that are particularly dependent on functioning phone lines, and offer to redirect their fixed network numbers to their smartphones.

Parallel to this, we keep our customers informed of the next steps by text message. If it is likely that the lines will be down for a longer period, our service technicians also hand out mobile communications routers and data vouchers, that is, credit notes for free quantities of data. And senior citizens who depend on an emergency home call system are given an emergency cell phone to tide them over. So, we're doing everything to ensure that the contact between our customers and the outside world is not interrupted, even after storm damage.

Prevention as a building block for perfect service

But that's not the end of the story: at Telekom, we work out in advance how to best manage storm incidents of this kind. This includes mobile containers that help us when an exchange is under water. These containers house the switching technology for around 8,000  phone lines, so that we can quickly supply many customers in a region with telephone and internet services again – while we repair our actual network technology in parallel.

We are also already working with state-of-the-art digital technologies to reliably forecast thunderstorm damage or detect problems in real time and proceed proactively. At best, before our customers even notice a fault. I'm talking about "predictive services". That's an exciting area and in my view an important building block for perfect service.

Saarland University is also working on this topic. My former department, IT, is researching an intelligent system that is to forecast local thunderstorms even more precisely than before – based on Artificial Intelligence. You see, AI can use two-dimensional satellite images to detect three-dimensional air displacements and thus very accurately predict thunderstorms in a specific region. I'm crossing my fingers for the project. If it's successful, it will be good for everyone.

Enjoy summer despite the freak weather

You can see that for me, as head of Service, summer doesn't just bring nice things. As soon as dark clouds appear in the sky after a hot summer's day, the alarm bells start to ring automatically in my head. Then every time I hope that we and our customers can be spared a possible storm. But now let's everyone also enjoy the beautiful sides of summer.
 

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