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Australian wildfires take toll on telco networks

Major telco networks in Australia were disrupted by power cuts resulting from devastating bushfires, raising questions about the resilience of the country’s communications infrastructure

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The bushfires that have killed 29 people, destroyed more than 2,200 homes and scorched about 18 million hectares of Australia have also taken their toll on communications networks.

This has been particularly true of the fires in southern New South Wales (NSW) and eastern Victoria over recent weeks.

Most outages occurred because of electricity supply failures. Backup batteries installed at towers and exchanges have a finite capacity that is only intended to bridge relatively short interruptions to the supply.

Some facilities have standby generators that can run indefinitely if their fuel tanks are replenished, but that cannot be done when telco staff are excluded from the area because of active fires or if roads leading to a facility are still closed.

“Where service outages have occurred, it has mainly been due to mains power outages,” said the National Broadband Network (NBN). “In those instances, we have deployed generators to restore power to NBN services once the immediate bushfire event has passed and it has been safe to do so.

“Restoring power to impacted NBN infrastructure and reconnecting communities has been our highest priority.”

Fewer than 10 NBN infrastructure sites had been directly damaged by bushfires as of 14 January 2020. These included two fixed wireless towers and some fibre-optic cables on the south coast of NSW, plus unspecified network infrastructure in the NSW high country and in north-eastern Victoria.

“At all affected sites, NBN technicians were able to access these areas, as soon as it was safe to do so, and the infrastructure was repaired, restoring normal service within days,” said NBN, adding that it will monitor weather changes and mains power outages, and refuel generators in affected areas.

“In the Mallacoota area, network construction activities were under way prior to the bushfires,” it said. “Access to this area remains restricted, so it is too early to account for any potential damage or rectification works that may be required.”

NBN does not expect any “material impact” on the broader roll-out of Australia’s fibre network infrastructure, saying it is committed to completing the roll-out by the end of June 2020.

The situation at Australia’s privately owned network operators was similar. Telstra told Computer Weekly that there was critical damage to its infrastructure, including towers and exchanges, with the loss of service caused by cuts in AC power.

As of 10 January 2020, 15 of Telstra’s NSW sites were affected, with fire damage to five towers, including significant damage at Bell, Jingellic and Wandera. One site in Victoria and one in South Australia were affected.

“All of our back-up power systems contain high-powered batteries, with our larger sites including generators and batteries,” said Telstra. “However, even these will run down during extended power outages and we are only able to replace them or refill generators once the authorities give us the all-clear to go into a fire zone.”

Optus said only “a fraction of 1%” of its sites were affected by the fires, but power outages were a significant factor in the disruptions, with east Gippsland in Victoria and the south coast of NSW facing the most severe disruptions. Optus has restored most of those sites by reinstating the mains power or deploying mobile generators.

“It has been an incredibly tough and unforgiving bushfire season for Australia,” said Optus, “and at its peak, we had approximately 40 sites down as a result of mass power outages across the NSW and Victorian coastlines. Many of these sites were restored quite quickly. However, seven sites across Australia [in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia] are down for the foreseeable future because of fire damage.”

Interim measures

In places where it was not possible to restore normal services promptly, the telcos introduced interim measures. Among these, NBN deployed Sky Muster satellite dishes to provide free Wi-Fi services at 28 locations in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, helping to connect families with each other and providing communication services in areas that might not otherwise have had them.

Telstra's interim measures included the deployment of a satellite cell-on-wheels in Walwa, Victoria, an emergency services cell-on-wheels in Mallacoota, Victoria, and a mobile exchange-on-wheels in Rappville and Killabakh Creek, NSW.

Optus said it will continue to top up generators to ensure service continuity in locations affected by power outages, working with emergency services and local authorities for access to mobile towers where it is safe to do so.

“Where we cannot access a site to restore power or towers have been destroyed, Optus has deployed a number of satellite cells [trailer-mounted base stations that connect via satellite to provide localised services] in locations including Malua Bay and Tumbarumba, NSW, and Corryong, Victoria,” it said. Additional locations are being evaluated.

The company is also supporting evacuation centres with charging stations and pre-paid data SIMs and is providing emergency services workers with satellite phones.

Vodafone has mobile generators that can be used to power sites that have lost mains electricity, as well as cells-on-wheels that can temporarily replace damaged infrastructure, but the company did not say where these have been deployed during the current crisis.

The carriers are also displaying corporate social responsibility in several ways towards those affected by the fires, including free access to public payphones, free call diversions and unmetered access to selected emergency services websites. Vodafone is also providing free 4G pocket Wi-Fi modems with three months’ service for those who have lost their homes to the fires.

Telstra, Optus and Vodafone are also waiving mobile bills for eligible volunteer firefighters and SES (State Emergency Service) volunteers for December 2019 and January 2020. Vodafone has extended this offer to eligible wildlife rescue volunteers.

“We want to do this to show our thanks to firefighters for their efforts in helping keep communities safe,” said Telstra CEO Andy Penn. “We hope this will ease some of the burden, particularly as many of these firefighters are defending their own communities.”

Vodafone CEO Iñaki Berroeta said: “This disaster is unprecedented and the impact to so many is far and wide. We will continue to provide assistance and support wherever we can to those in need at this difficult time.”

Weighing in on telcos’ recovery efforts, Una Lawrence, director of policy at the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), said: “Positively, we have seen the major telcos and NBN step up in these challenging times. They have quickly mobilised their technician teams to fix damaged infrastructure where possible and provided alternative solutions to keep communities connected through the likes of satellite services.

“We have also been glad to see that the major telcos have been quick to offer assistance packages to affected customers. From offering data-free access to emergency services websites, to ensuring customers are kept connected in instances of financial hardship, we recognise that the telco industry has been proactive in its support for Australians during these continuing bushfires.”

Network resilience in question

Although the telcos have responded quickly to help customers stay connected, the events of this bushfire season have led to questions about the resilience of Australia’s communications networks in the face of large-scale emergencies.

“Our focus at this point in time is the recovery of our services,” said a Telstra spokesperson. “In the fullness of time and once services are restored to our customers, we will consider our technologies and any questions about network resilience.

“We consider our network and processes to be world-leading in times of crisis and natural disasters. With that, we are always looking at ways to improve the redundancy across the network and will continue to do so as part of the bushfire recovery efforts.”

NBN said its network was designed to be as resilient as possible, and that its multi-technology mix, particularly the integration of fixed wireless and satellite technologies, helped to strengthen the resilience and availability of the network in the bushfire-affected regions.

“The NBN access network has proven very resilient in the face of these devastating fires,” it said. “Where service outages have occurred, it has mainly been due to mains power outages.

“NBN will continue to work closely with the department of communications and the arts, state and territory governments, regulators, our delivery partners, retail service providers and the industry to maintain the highest possible availability and continuity of essential telecommunications services throughout Australia, particularly in times of severe weather events and natural disasters.” 

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A Vodafone spokesperson said its NBN services appear to be more resilient in this situation because it has included 4G mobile backup in its NBN offering, so even when NBN fixed services are disrupted, the NBN modem “falls back” to the mobile network, where available.

The spokesman said the company’s resilience measures include battery backups at all macro and in-building cell sites, generation capability at key network sites, solar power at some sites in remote locations, and a policy of constructing sites in bushfire-risk areas out of fire-resistant materials, such as brick. 

ACCAN’s Lawrence, however, noted that even though mobile towers often have backup batteries and diesel generators, these eventually run out during extended power outages.

“We are concerned that consumers in the NBN fixed footprint are especially vulnerable, as their NBN-based services will not work in a power outage,” she said. “If both mobile and fixed voice services are knocked out, people will be left unable to call for help in an emergency.”

Paul Fletcher, Australia’s minister for communications, cyber safety and the arts, did not respond to Computer Weekly’s request for comment on the resilience of Australia’s communications networks. But in an earlier written statement, he commended the telcos’ efforts to restore services.

“It is important to remember that no form of telecommunications is 100% resilient, and people should not be relying on a single means of communications,” he said. “In many cases, a portable transistor radio with a spare set of batteries is a vital way to receive emergency information, in the event that there is a loss of mains power or mobile coverage.”

Michelle Rowland, shadow minister for communications, said: “Labor is consulting broadly on the impact of the bushfires on our communications networks, and how to ensure Australia is better prepared in the future. Naturally, hard questions need to be asked and answered about what has occurred and what could have been done better.”

A spokesperson for the Australian Communications and Media Authority acknowledged the rapid response and hard work of Australia’s major telcos in support of communities impacted by the bushfire emergency, adding: “The ability for people to communicate during a crisis is critical, and it will also be important to take the lessons learned during these fires to improve the resilience of Australia’s telecommunications networks during times of emergency.”

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