Roundtable examines bushfires' effects on communications

By Jonathan Nally
Thursday, 23 January, 2020

Roundtable examines bushfires' effects on communications

A government and industry roundtable has assessed the bushfires’ effects on telecommunications, and agreed on measures to examine hardening networks.

A roundtable meeting comprising government, major telcos and industry groups was convened Wednesday, 23 January by the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, to tackle the question of network resilience during the recent severe bushfires.

Present at the meeting were Telstra Chief Executive Andy Penn, Optus Chief Executive Allen Lew, Vodafone Chief Executive Iñaki Berroeta, NBN Co Chief Executive Stephen Rue and TPG Chief Operating Officer Craig Levy.

Also present were senior representatives from other telecommunications organisations such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), Communications Alliance, the NSW Telco Authority and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).

Emergency management bodies such as the Bushfire Recovery Agency and Emergency Management Australia also attended.

The meeting looked at both the short-term response to the effects the bushfires had on communications services, as well as longer-term ideas to improve network resilience.

The Minister commended the telcos for working to restore services, and for providing relief packages (such as Optus’s Green Shoots program) to affected areas, with the NSW Telco Authority noting the telcos had been very responsive during the crisis.

The roundtable also recognised the role played by the Australian Defence Force in helping telcos gain access to critical infrastructure for repair and restoration of services.

Of particular note was the observation that most network outages had been due to loss of power, not due to fire damage to network facilities.

The telcos noted that the bushfires made it difficult to gain access to some sites to assess damage and install generators.

The participants discussed several initiatives to boost network resilience in the future, such as:

  • Clearing of vegetation around base stations and other transmission facilities to produce larger firebreaks.
  • Information sharing from energy companies on power availability to enable telcos to prioritise the deployment of generators.
  • Giving operators access to emergency fuel stores for refuelling of mobile base stations’ back-up generators.

The roundtable agreed to several initial primary actions:

  • ACMA, together with Communications Alliance and AMTA, will conduct an industry-wide review into the effect of the bushfires on communications networks and how the operators responded.
  • Communications Alliance, on behalf of industry, will lead the development of a national common operating model for telecommunications disaster management to strengthen interaction with lead state agencies.
  • AMTA will work with industry to ensure emergency coordination agencies have better information about the locations of critical mobile infrastructure.

The industry also agreed to work with the federal government to examine options to increase network resilience and continuity of services during future natural disasters, by looking at the following:

  • Industry coordination of advice to residents.
  • Options for better network redundancy to support services such as banking and EFTPOS.
  • Better use of Wi-Fi and satellite in areas where mobile networks are unserviceable.
  • Whether additional temporary facilities such as COWs are needed.
  • Whether network resilience could be further improved.

“While no telecommunications network is 100% 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,” the Minister added.

Laurie Patton, Vice President of Telsoc, said his organisation has encouraged the Minister to canvass a variety of input and opinions from a wide range of industry groups and experts. “Telsoc has written to the Minister offering to provide the advice of its many highly qualified members,” Patton said.

Pictured: Australian Army reservist Corporal Michael Abraham from the 10th/27th Royal South Australia Regiment is deployed to Kangaroo Island, South Australia, during Operation Bushfire Assist 2019–2020. He was able to use his experience and contacts from his day job as a Telstra employee to speed up the reconnection of phone services to the town of Parndana after a bushfire damaged the local telecommunications tower. ADF image by LCPL Brodie Cross © Commonwealth of Australia

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