Interview with Ali Moore, ABC Radio Melbourne: Drive with Ali Moore

ALI MOORE, HOST: Now, Telstra says dozens of its mobile sites are still out, along with thousands of landlines. So, how resilient is our communications infrastructure? Michelle Rowland is the federal Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, welcome to the programme.


MOORE: What's your latest information about the situation here?

ROWLAND: Well, firstly, it is a tragic situation and I acknowledge that this is a really difficult time for Victorians. There's been loss of life and property and just the extent of the impact is really something to behold, from the city to suburbs and regions. So, it has been a very significant disruption to communication services right across the state, and that's a result of the power outages caused by the wild weather.

So, just to give you an update, the carriers have been in constant contact, as well as my department providing all outage reports to the Victorian State Control Centre, as well as the National Situation Room in NEMA. What we do know is that there is some progress on restoration of power, which is the ultimate goal here. The challenge is that telco networks rely on power to operate, so all the efforts across government and industry have been on getting power restored. My understanding is there's still around 60,000 homes without power. Look, that's down from the original half a million, it's still a lot, but progress is being made.

I know that Optus has about 70 sites down, there's around 43 sites down for TPG, Telstra has been deploying power technicians with portable generators to priority sites to get those back online. It is staggering to think, at its height, they actually had – for Telstra 600 network sites offline – and they've currently got about 65 mobile sites offline. NBN has about 350 sites down, and again, they've deployed a number of generators across Greater Melbourne and regional Victoria. The generators are moved around as sites progressively come back. But I do want to thank all of the technicians, all of the workers who have been really going around-the-clock to try and get this power back on and to get all of these facilities back online. They're making solid progress. But again, this does rely on power supply and efforts are really being put into that.

MOORE: And you call it staggering yourself, and if all the telecommunication suppliers are out in a particular area, that means no Triple Zero, doesn't it?

ROWLAND: That's right, although the Triple Zero service itself remains operational and so they can receive calls. But the weak link is the network being down and there is a function, a protocol that goes into operation, if, for example, one network is down, it will camp-on to another network. But when you've got all of towers down from all of the carriers, then it simply can't operate. That is the key here to getting the power up, which is why the focus has been on that.

MOORE: So, is it, Minister, a fact of life that we just have to suck up and accept, and probably accept more regularly because we're going to get more of these extreme weather events, or should we be doing better?

ROWLAND: We should be doing better. I'm pleased to say that this is widely recognised across industry, regulators and government as well. I think there's really two things here. Firstly, it's the technology that is being developed to go into what we call hardening the mobile network. So, making it stay online for longer and in some cases this can be a matter of life and death. So, we are supporting, through investing over $50 million in some of these resilience measures. I should say that a lot of this has come out of the various Royal Commissions and other inquiries that have been done into previous disasters. It is unfortunate, Ali, that the carriers are doing the best job they can now, because unfortunately they've had to do it on so many occasions in the recent past. So, there's that side of the technology, but it's also ensuring that the right protocols are always in place, that the telcos know what to do, that they are feeding that information to one another. I think it is fair to say that that has improved as we've had, unfortunately, so many natural disasters over the years.

I think that projects like mobile network hardening, they do help to prevent outages to telcos, they do help to strengthen that resilience, they do help the rapid restoration, but I think in the longer term, and this is something that we've been looking at as a government, many of your listeners will know about Low Earth Orbit satellites or LEOSats. Now, some of this technology really has the ability to be a gamechanger, especially when you're able to have direct handset to satellite that doesn't rely on terrestrial facilities, because as I said, that is all relying on power. When those facilities power goes out, the whole network goes out.

MOORE: Can I just clarify though. So, you're talking about hardening the mobile network technology to do that? The biggest issue is with all these base stations that have gone out who haven't got power, they might have a backup generator, they might have a backup battery. It only lasts for a certain period of time. So, what does hardening the mobile network actually mean?

ROWLAND: No, that's a good question. There's no single definition of what hardening is, but it is generally understood to be in what ways can a facility stay online for longer –

MOORE: Well, the only way is a longer life generator or longer life battery, surely, or one of your low-level satellites, but we're not there yet?

ROWLAND: Sure. There's also solar technologies that are being developed. In some areas that are susceptible to flood, there's ensuring that they are put up higher. The telcos are also developing re-fuelling protocols to make sure that they've got generators that are able to be kept running for longer. It's a combination of mechanisms. But I should stress that in situations like this, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. But the combination of technologies of having the industry on board and working together, but also having the Federal Government providing that support, I think is all making a measurable difference.

And if I may just give you an example, between December last year and January this year, we had around 43 portable generators from that network hardening program deployed by Telstra and they ensured that mobile services were continuing to support communities in Queensland and Western Australia that had been impacted by those cyclones and severe storms. This kind of investment actually does produce results. We want to keep encouraging that innovation, making sure the industry keeps working together, because I think it's unfortunate to say that we are getting more natural disasters that are more severe in their impact as we're seeing right now.

MOORE: And given that though, I mean, you're putting $50 million into it and obviously the telcos will be putting some in too, but it's years since we had the really nasty bushfires, we've had really nasty floods. Every single time the same thing happens and it is a matter of life and death. Shouldn't we be doing more faster?

ROWLAND: I think that that is a fair assessment in terms of, yes, this is happening more frequently, but again, I think one of the key issues here is that as we have better technologies, having more fibre, for example, which is less susceptible to some of these limitations, having more utilisation of technologies like LEOSats, I think that is a long-term issue.

I would also just point out to your listeners, we have been looking very closely at the whole integration of all these different programs and how they come together. So, your listeners might be aware that there's something called the Universal Service Obligation, which essentially has been around forever. It's basically about getting a voice service through what was always a copper landline service. I think a valid question to ask, and we have been bringing this out through our review of the USO, is not just identifying problems, but saying, look, what is the expectation in the long term? People rely on communications so much. The basic service now, isn't just having a voice service provided through copper. It's so much more. It's keeping it on for as long as possible. So, we are taking a very long term view, with a technology focus. But again, this is not just about problem identification. We've kicked this off to get real results in the immediate term.

MOORE: Which I think everyone is waiting for, particularly you look at places like Mirboo North. They've had no telecommunications and no power. They probably will get, well, I think they got a mobile telecoms tower this afternoon and they'll get power tonight. But that means they've basically been out of the ability, without the ability to make a phone call for a couple of days.

ROWLAND: Absolutely, and it also means, like, in terms of commerce in the area as well as we saw with the floods in Northern NSW. I remember one of the anecdotes passed to me was that it was like living in the Stone Age, just not having any communications, so acutely aware of how important this is. And again, we are doing our best and want to thank all the workers who are working so hard to get power back online and these facilities online. Again, the industry and government and regulators will take the lessons from this as well, but our immediate priority is to get that back online.

MOORE: Michelle Rowland, thank you very much for joining us.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.