Op-Ed: Telcos learn to keep connected under fire
There will be many lessons to learn from the impact of this year's severe bushfires on our telecommunications networks.
Each time a bushfire has triggered outages to fixed line and mobile networks, the network operators - Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, NBN Co and others - have worked quickly to get their networks back up.
For example, following the severe bushfire weekend of January 4 and 5 there were service outages at more than 100 mobile base stations in bushfire affected areas of NSW, Victoria and South Australia, across the Telstra, Optus and Vodafone mobile networks.
Service staff from the telcos - with support in the field from emergency services personnel and the Australian Defence Force - have worked long hours in difficult circumstances to keep networks running, and to fix network outages as quickly as possible.
By the end of the week, the majority of base stations were restored - but around thirty were still out of service.
In some cases an outage is because the base station is damaged or destroyed by fire, but the more common reason is that mains power has failed.
Many base stations have back-up power, from a battery or from a diesel generator. But if mains power is not restored - and if the operator cannot get in to refuel the generator - the base station will stop once the backup power runs out.
Where a base station has been damaged, network operators can install a temporary facility, called a "cell on wheels", to provide an interim mobile service. In recent days Telstra has deployed these temporary facilities in Mallacoota, Corryong and Walwa in Victoria, and Optus in La Trobe in Victoria and Malua Bay and Tumbarumba in NSW.
Certainly, how quickly networks are restored will be one important issue to consider as we review the lessons from this season's bushfires.
A second issue will be the physical resilience of the network. What network elements - base stations, exchanges, transmission lines, satellite dishes, antennas - were damaged in the fires?
If we are to face longer and more intense bushfire seasons in the future, are there designs which would better protect networks against damage?
I have spoken to chief executives from our major telecommunications operators to ask them to consider these issues as they examine the lessons learned within their companies.
As the Government does its own review of the bushfires, the performance of communications networks will appropriately be among the many issues to be considered.
A third issue is the choice of networks available to people in bushfire affected areas. In telecommunications jargon, it is good to have network redundancy - so that if one network goes down another may still be available. A key source of redundancy, in many homes, is that there is mobile coverage as well as a fixed line connection.
Our Government is concerned that there are still too many smaller towns and communities in regional and remote Australia without mobile coverage. That is why we have worked to increase mobile coverage through the Mobile Black Spot Program.
The first four rounds have seen more than $760 million invested, funding 1,047 mobile base stations around Australia.
Another source of redundancy comes from satellites - such as NBN Co's two satellites, which provide coverage across the entire Australian landmass.
In recent days, NBN has deployed trucks with a satellite dish and generator into affected areas like Batemans Bay, offering Wi-Fi connectivity to anybody who comes to stand near the truck. NBN Co has also rapidly installed temporary broadband and Wi-Fi services, connected over its satellites, to more than a dozen evacuation centres around the country.
Telstra's work to equip many of its payphones as Wi-Fi hotspots has offered another important option in towns where the mobile network was down - allowing people with Wi-Fi equipped mobile handsets to get connectivity near those payphones.
But as we review the lessons from these bushfires, it will be important to ask if there are things we should do differently so that our telecommunications networks are as resilient as possible.
Are the battery and generator backups sufficient for disaster resilience?
Have we made enough use of the redundancy that satellite offers? For example, could EFTPOS services - which today often run over mobile networks - use satellite connectivity to keep operating when the mobile network goes down?
Do the network operators have enough temporary facilities to replace a base station or exchange which is damaged?
We have seen some great work done by our network operators in responding to these severe bushfires - but we must not shy away from asking if we could be even better prepared in future.