Mobile phone meltdown leaves France on hold

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The Independent Online

France has been plunged into techno-shock by the failure of one of its mobile phone networks, which deprived seven million people of calls and text messages for 24 hours.

France has been plunged into techno-shock by the failure of one of its mobile phone networks, which deprived seven million people of calls and text messages for 24 hours.

The breakdown, caused by an unexplained fault in twin computer servers, follows recent, similarly unexplained crashes in the national railway company's booking service and in part of the network of the main fixed-line telephone company, France Telecom.

Is a deadly computer virus at large? Is reliability being sacrificed on the altar of rapid progress and competition? Are computer systems becoming so intricate and labyrinthine that they have passed beyond understanding and control? The French industry minister, Patrick Devedjian, has ordered an independent, ministerial investigation, to be completed in three weeks, to reply to these and other questions.

In the meantime, seven million French men and women - most of them concentrated in Paris and other large cities - were given an abrupt reminder of how life used to be lived before the invention of the mobile telephone.

"At first, I thought that I had lost all my friends at once. No calls. No text messages," said Philippe Hadrien, 32, a banker. "Then I saw the blank screen on my phone and I realised that something even more dreadful had happened. I was cut off from the world."

The Bouygues Telecom mobile system, the third largest in France, with poor rural coverage but very popular with young, urban professionals, collapsed at 6am on Wednesday. The finance ministry thought the event sufficiently important to alert the Prime Minister's office. "We know," said the senior adviser to the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who answered the phone. "We are all Bouygues users here."

Bouygues Telecom, part of one of France's largest media and communications companies, is still at a loss to explain what happened. "We had a reserve capacity built into the system but it failed," said Yves Caseau, Bouygues' director of computer systems. "For twin servers to crash simultaneously is statistically very rare."

There was a cacophony of suggested explanations for this, and the other recent computer crashes, yesterday. Trades union federations suggested that telecommunications companies were dashing ahead with innovations without spending enough on testing reliability.

Computer experts, however, compared them to breakdowns in recent years in the electricity supplies in North America and Italy, suggesting it was indicative that systems are becoming so elaborate it is difficult to manage them or trace tiny faults. Michel Ridiguel, an expert on telephone systems, told the newspaper Libération: "A grain of sand in the system - a surge of traffic, a computer bug - and the whole network can come down."

Bouygues announced yesterday that it would compensate all subscribers by waiving payment for calls for a day.

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