Op-Ed: Key lessons from bushfire failures

When devastating bushfires hit Australia over summer, our fixed line and mobile phone networks came under great pressure.

At the peak in early January, some 150 mobile base stations across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were off the air – and over 20,000 NBN services were down.

The failures were very visible. When busy holiday towns on the NSW south coast and eastern Victoria lost mobile service, it made a bad situation worse.

Locals and tourists lost contact with friends and family. When EFTPOS terminals (many of which run over mobile networks) went down, people could not buy food or fuel.

Many of these problems were fixed quickly – with staff at Australia’s big telcos like NBN Co, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and TPG, working intensely to get networks restored.

But we need to know exactly what happened – and what we can do to respond better in future.

In January I convened a round table of our telcos – attended by the CEOs of Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, NBN Co and TPG and many other senior leaders from the sector.

Companies reported on some of the issues they had faced – including direct fire damage to base stations and exchanges, loss of power, and difficulties in accessing base stations and exchanges once a fire had passed through.

We agreed that the Australian Communications and Media Authority, working with industry peak bodies Communications Alliance and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Authority, would conduct an investigation and prepare a report on what happened.

That report has now been submitted to me – and I am releasing it publicly.

It is a valuable fact base – about what happened to telecommunications networks during and after the fires, and how the telcos responded.

One encouraging finding was that most network outages were restored quickly, on average within 3.5 days.

But the report also highlights the scale of what happened. A total of 1,390 facilities were impacted by the bushfires in December 2019 and January 2020.

This includes exchanges, mobile phone base stations, equipment shelters, cables and other parts of the telcos’ networks.

In the great majority of cases, the cause of the impact was a loss of mains power.

It is natural for us to envisage base stations damaged by fire – and certainly there were cases where this happened. I saw a sobering example at Malua Bay on the NSW South Coast, where a mobile base station was left scorched and partially melted after a fire went through.

But according to the ACMA report, this was in fact very unusual. There were 888 separate outage incidents. Of these, only 11 were caused directly by fire damage – while 779 were caused by a loss of power.

These are important facts as we work out how to better prepare networks for future bushfires.

Most mobile base stations have some form of back-up power, either from generators or batteries. This is one reason why almost a quarter of incidents did not lead to service outages; and for a further 26 per cent the outage lasted less than four hours.

The back-up power generally operates for a finite period – typically between three and twenty four hours.

If an existing generator can be topped up with diesel fuel or a temporary one installed then service can continue – but at times the telcos could not get access to their base stations in areas where a bushfire had recently gone through.

This was sometimes due to site access issues such as fallen trees and debris; at other times it was because state emergency services organisations did not allow them in for some time.

As this report highlights, there are promising directions for future work – and much of that work is already under way.

Industry associations from the telecommunications and energy sectors have agreed to form a group to develop mechanisms to improve co-ordination and communications channels during crises such as bushfire events, with the aim of reducing the impact of mains power outages on mobile and fixed connectivity.

With better co-ordination between the telcos and state government emergency agencies, important network facilities could be protected more effectively and restored more quickly.

If mobile base stations had more back up power, services would be more resilient.

We also need to look at using satellite backup. NBN Co, Optus and other companies own satellites can provide continuing coverage even when the terrestrial network is down.

NBN Co showed over summer that it could quickly install satellite connections at evacuation centres, allowing broadband services to be provided in the centres to anyone with a wi-fi equipped smart phone or tablet.

But there may be other possibilities. Could we use satellite to provide a ‘failover’ service to support EFTPOS if the mobile network stops working, for example?

As this report reminds us, no telecommunications network is 100 per cent impervious to damage or destruction, whether from bushfire or other natural disasters.

But with a combination of fixed, mobile and satellite services, our networks have much more redundancy than twenty or thirty years ago.

We have come a long way – and there is more we can do. With this report, we have the evidence base for the decisions needed to make our networks even more resilient.

Paul Fletcher is the Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts

Originally published on theaustralian.com.au, Monday 4 May 2020