Frontline 24/7

Resilience and smart working, Terna and its weapons against the crisis

Devices for everyone. And speeding towards "mobile" and decentralised work. Beyond the emergency: this is how we go into the future.

Word of the day: resilience. That is, the structural ability to resist, to face any eventuality, without ever renouncing one's ability to fully provide, at all times, all the services requested by citizens and businesses. The electrical system requires, indeed demands, a lot. The crisis created by the coronavirus has imposed drastic choices, an immediate organisational revolution, real barriers against the thousand unexpected events that normal consolidated practices would not be able to face. And above all, a great, inevitable, advance game to modernise processes and organisation. Terna is meeting the challenge. The multi-faceted personnel that work for the operator of the Italian electricity grid were quickly equipped with technology, devices and instructions. And they met the challenge, thanks to a factor that wasn’t necessarily a given: “Full cooperation from the trade unions”, is what the chain of command has reported. And today, in the midst of a crisis that constitutes an unimaginable and unprecedented stress test for all large utilities, the electrical system guarantees non-emergency services and performances that are fully aligned with best practices. A minor miracle? Not at all. Rather, the sum of the right skills, at the service of internal cooperation.

The ability to react. Smart working has forcibly overwhelmed the company. Which wasn’t completely unprepared. A few hundred people, among the approximately 4,300 direct Terna employees were already doing it, at least one day a week. Over a period of just a few days, the drastic, complete change, for all organisational functions that do not operate directly in the field. But our ingenuity, spurred on by the emergency, did not stop there: even the emergency, maintenance and installation teams received new technology, thanks to which they were able to limit being in shared spaces, allowing them to comply with instructions regarding the safest health precautions.

In just two weeks, from the first signs of crisis, a full-scale operation to provide or replace laptops and telecommunications equipment was organised and implemented, involving the entire technical-logistics chain. There have been 650 notebooks assigned since January, compared to an average of 400 a year in the past two years, due also to the partial replacement of desktop computers used by shift workers or first-level managers, for example. And so, while almost all Terna employees now have a company laptop, an expansion operation naturally involved the telecommunications infrastructure featuring the best redundancy parameters that must be adopted in order to guarantee the highest standards of reliability and safety.

(Negative Space/Pexels.com)

Racing to get technology. Managers of the operating structures in the area were given satellite telephones in addition to the devices they had already been assigned, and all the staff most exposed to critical issues were provided with backup SIM cards from a different operator than the primary one used. Enough to work with, but also absolutely necessary for an average number of daily connections which skyrocketed in the first 15 days of March to 3,400, with dozens and dozens of meetings held remotely, and at the same time, via video and audio conference, which made the amount of data exchanged go up to an astounding 3.5 Terabytes of traffic per day, a quantity of text, that if printed, would require the paper produced from around two thousand trees.

Power, expansion and security. Internet connections have also been strengthened by optimising the VPN (Virtual Private Network) as part of a complex operation to raise the standards of resilience and, at the same time, of overall security of both the physical structures (on 20 March a second room in the Security operations centre was established for video surveillance and monitoring of anti-intrusion alarms in plants and also to increase the safety distance between employees) and of communications. In order to raise cyber security standards, the protection measures against cyber attacks were upgraded, in particular against D-DOS (Distributed Denial of Service) intrusions, the practice sadly known by experts that provides for massive multiple and simultaneous attacks which then make company systems go haywire.

Terna's National Control Centre of the electricity system (photo by Terna)

What stress teaches us. An enormous stress test, which can also provide useful information for companies facing the same problems and so they can take advantage of the same opportunities. Can this experience, dramatic as it is, provide us with a useful legacy for the future? Absolutely, on the parallel tracks of reorganising interpersonal relationships following the wave of new technologies and virtual tools that are a bit forcibly becoming the absolute prime movers in our daily lives, and of course of the small but great technological devices that surround us. Thus, the rapid, sudden growth of the functions related to the expansion of smart working confirmed how sound the communication infrastructure laid out by Terna in the area really are, which then needed strengthening, but nonetheless highlighted all the known shortcomings of the public telecommunications system.

Staff working from home using their home Internet? The "digital divide" in Italy is well known. It has a huge impact on many remote places, but even within large urban areas, there are zones still served by old copper wires and first-generation ADSL. It must be said that telecommunications operators have shown great collaboration during this difficult time, and we found the solution, especially in areas where the need was greater, by using alternatives to fixed broadband connections, thanks to the excellent performance of our mobile networks, capable of providing excellent connectivity through tethering our ever-present smartphones.