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ICT News & Events
June 16, 2022

Australian telcos prepare to keep communications up during extreme weather

Australian telcos prepare to keep communications up during extreme weather

With extreme weather comes risk to communications, from fire to flood, cyclones and storms, lightening and heavy rains, extreme heat to extreme cold - Australia sees it all. Some of the most critical services that get disrupted during the extreme weather are telecommunications and power.

The Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Enquiry, released in August 2020, found that telecommunications was the service most valued by the community and also critical for emergency services. Among the 76 recommendations, one was that the state government to work closely with relevant bodies and providers to minimise communication outages and extend basic communications coverage during bushfires. This has put some pressure on telcos to ensure sufficient redundancy options among other points. Most telecommunications providers already do year-round checks of their networks, but with more extreme weather events happening more frequently it's now something on the agenda for all, and some are putting extra measures in place to ensure connectivity.

In the flooding events of earlier this year in East Coast of NSW, residents and emergency services saw a number of issues with connectivity including power and internet outages affecting phone services and emergency communictions. Concerns that the outages hampered the rescue effort are valid. Without connectivity, people are unable to contact emergency services or check the latest evacuation advice and families are unable to contact vulnerable relatives.

Telstra revealed that across the Sydney and North East NSW areas declared as facingmass service disruptions during the peak of the disaster, disruptions were recorded for 42,940 Telstra-provided NBN services, 14,579 PSTN services and 5,468 ADSL services. In addition, 124 base stations were disrupted and 23 communities left in isolation due to damage to their connectivity to the outside world.

The outages left residents “unable to access timely and reliable emergency messaging and information on transport, road closures and ongoing risks to safety,” and also affected the ability of residents and businesses to pay for needed goods and services – including water during a temporary period of water insecurity – during the crisis.

In the Strengthening against Natural Disasters Report from the The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (DITRDC)

The research identified 3 overarching findings:

  1. As technology has advanced, Australians have embraced new telecommunications services and integrated the key functionality and conveniences into their everyday life
  2. Many over-estimate their understanding of how telecommunications work with regional, rural and remote Australians more likely to make a conservative assessment of their preparedness for an outage in a natural disaster while urban residents are somewhat over-confident.
  3. Due to a lack of understanding and preparedness, Australians lack resilience when it comes to the ability to manage without telecommunications services in a natural disaster – for those with experience, regardless of how much preparation they did, there was still an element of being unprepared

Generally people from disaster prone areas have more experience with outages, these residents understand that extreme weather situations can cause damage to power and telecommunications infrastructure and disruptions to telecommunications signals – they generally expect that when there is a major storm, flood, cyclone or bushfire that power goes out and their telecommunications services will too. Regional/rural residents appear to better understand the flow on effects of these outages which other members of the community are less aware of–that a loss of power means that fuel pumps don’t work, that backup generators are good options for power until they run out of fuel, that ATM machines and EFTPOS machines don’t work, that cash is the only option for buying goods and that calls to 000 won’t go through.

These more familiar residents may not always understand the exact reason or are sure of whatcuirmstance led to the telecommunications outage–damage to power lines, physical damage to telecommunications towers, smoke disrupting signals - but they are familiar with the vulnerabilities of power and telecommunications and generally accept this as their reality.

Community members without an understanding of how telecommunications work, without experience with telecommunications outages and without experience in a natural disaster have very little understanding of the resilience issues of telecommunications in a disaster.

Further, they are substantially less aware of the full impact of these outages – many have not fully considered the implications of not being able to use their mobile devices or access the internet in daily life, let alone during a natural disaster. At best, their preparation for telecommunications will be a spare phone charger – but the idea they may need multiple power sources, or ensure one phone is reserved with maximum battery storage for emergencies, or maintaining a battery operated radio is very low on the list for these cohorts.

In response to extreme weather events a number of telecommunications carriers have invested in technology and equipment to provide communities with temporary telecommunications support such as internet services at community hubs and relief centres. Many of these efforts are partially funded through the Australian government’s Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters (STAND)package, which offered grants of as much as $7.7 million.

NBN has announced a temporary network infrastructure that may be deployed, where it is safe, into communities following emergency events to provide temporary internet services at community hubs and relief centres.This support equipment includes multitechnology trailers (MTTs), network on wheels, wireless mast trailers, and hybrid power cubes, which will be stationed in various locations across the country for potential deployment when needed.

NBN also continues to roll out its Disaster Satellite Service, with units being installed at designated emergency management sites and evacuation centres across the country.

Optus and Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, have conducted a country-wide analysis of the telco's infrastructure to assess where there is risk of damage and where upgrades could reduce vulnerability to future bushfire events. The study focused on the impacts of embers, radiation, and flame around Optus's sites and equipment. As a result, Optus is implementing the recommended mitigations at two of its sites in Victoria: Seville East and Dixons Creek. These mitigations include implementing ember attack protections, nearby consequential fire threat removal, and nearby tree threat reduction.

Telstra has introduced a fleet of temporary network recovery units that are on standby year-round and ready for deployment after an emergency to provide temporary connectivity, using connecting poles and antennas to either fibre or satellite data links.

To find out more about how your business can improve your wholesale telecommunications product range for your customers and provide a telecommunication solution that includes contingency for severe weather events, please get in contact with the Partner Wholesale Networks team.

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