Australia’s disastrous 2020 bushfire season has been complicated by telecommunication failures and equipment destruction in affected areas at a time of their critical need. The emergency has highlighted a range of infrastructure inadequacies that need urgent action.
At a roundtable convened by the Minister for Communications on 22 January, Australia’s telco industry leaders addressed the sector’s response to the impact of bushfires on communication services, and devised long-term initiatives to bolster network resilience.
Ahead of the meeting, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP visited fire-affected areas in Moruya, Batemans Bay and Malua Bay, where he inspected network facilities and met residents.
He commended the telcos and their staff for working to restore services as quickly as possible, as well as providing relief packages to affected areas, noting the telcos had been exceptionally responsive during the crisis.
Critical infrastructure and access
One notable issue is that any equipment connected via the NBN broadband access network will not work during a power outage. Most network outages following the bushfires have been due to loss of power and not because of direct bushfire damage to network facilities.
At the roundtable, the telcos also identified the difficulty the bushfire situation created in accessing some sites where mobile infrastructure is located, to assess damage and install generators.
Allen Mapstone, Director Strategic Asset Management at IPWEA Australasia, experienced the bushfire telecommunications outages first-hand in dangerous conditions when his family was evacuated under police escort from Bendalong, NSW at new year.
For three days before their emergency order there was no electricity, phone or internet access at the small coastal community, which was surrounded by heavy smoke and with flames visible in the distance at times.
“The response from service providers and contractors to the bushfires has been impressive and is certainly recognised,” said Mapstone.
“What did strike me was that key infrastructure such as power was fragile. Seeing pine power poles burning and blocking the only road access to the area raises many questions about infrastructure resilience.”
At the Minister’s roundtable initiatives discussed for future network resilience were:
- Further clearing of bushland around mobile base stations and transmission facilities to create larger firebreaks;
- Information-sharing from the energy companies on the availability of power to enable telcos to prioritise the deployment of generators;
- Enabling telecommunications operators to access emergency fuel stores to support the refuelling of diesel generators providing back-up power to mobile base stations.
The key actions agreed on were:
- The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), working with industry peak bodies Communications Alliance and (Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association) AMTA, will conduct an industry-wide review into the impact of the bushfires on telecommunications networks, and how the operators responded;
- The Communications Alliance will lead, on behalf of industry, the development of a national common operating model for telecommunications disaster management to underpin efficient interaction with state government lead agencies;
- AMTA will work with industry to ensure emergency coordination agencies have better information about the location of critical mobile infrastructure.
The industry will also work with the Government to investigate options to increase network resilience in the future, and to improve the continuity of services to Australians, examining issues such as:
- Industry coordination of advice to residents in affected areas;
- Options for greater network redundancy to support critical services such as banking and EFTPOS in areas affected by natural disasters;
- Ways to make better use of Wi-Fi and satellite services to provide connectivity in areas where mobile networks are down;
- Potential need for additional temporary facilities such as Cells On Wheels (COWs) to replace damaged facilities;
- Whether network resilience could be further improved.
“While no telecommunications network is 100 per cent impervious to damage from natural disasters, Australians naturally want to be confident our communications networks are as resilient as possible during times of emergency,” Minister Fletcher said.
“We are better placed than 20 or 30 years ago; the combination of mobile, fixed line and satellite connectivity combined with mobile COWs and temporary satellites on the NBN that can be deployed means we now have greater back-ups and options to keep our vital communications networks up and running.
“This bushfire season is not over yet and may continue into 2020 – the telecommunications industry is working hard to help affected communities and is well-positioned to react quickly to any future bushfires.”
Having witnessed the impact of the fires on communication services in a regional area with limited access, Allen Mapstone is pleased about the action taken by the telcos to work through the issues.
“We welcome an in-depth discussion about critical infrastructure and how we can plan for greater resilience in times of stress, particularly when natural disasters such as bushfires occur. Additionally, seeing this being led at a national level is very positive to provide a consistent approach to this challenge.”
In attendance at the roundtable were: Telstra Chief Executive Andy Penn, Optus Chief Executive Allen Lew, Vodafone Chief Executive Iñaki Berroeta, NBN Chief Executive Stephen Rue and TPG Chief Operating Officer Craig Levy attended the roundtable, along with senior representatives from other telecommunications sector organisations including ACMA, AMTA, Communications Alliance, the NSW Telco Authority and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN). Emergency management organisations, including the Bushfire Recovery Agency and Emergency Management Australia, were also present.
The roundtable acknowledged the assistance and support provided by the Australian Defence Force in providing access for telcos to repair and restore services.
Image by: Naomi Douglas, Bendalong resident and bushfire evacuee
Related story: Australia’s bushfire crisis: a personal evacuation story by Allen Mapstone