Cyclone Gabrielle tests the resilience of our telecoms networks
UPDATED: The country’s central telecoms networks appear to have held up well to Cyclone Gabrielle’s onslaught, even if thousands of customers have lost connectivity due to power outages.
An update this morning from Telecommunications Forum chief executive, Paul Brislen, noted that “networks are largely undamaged but there are outages due to a lack of power supply”.
“Each telco is working to ensure cell sites operating on batteries are optimised for power saving. Network teams are working to get generators out to the key nodes around the networks to ensure they will continue to operate,” Brislen added.
Photo credit: Casey Horner, Unsplash
Network outage maps still show numerous outages across Northland, the Coromandel, parts of Gisborne, Taupo and a few patches in Auckland. But the outages are generally small and localised, affecting dozens of customers. Still the micro-outages add up to thousands of people unable to make calls or access the internet at a time when communication can be a lifeline.
UPDATE: 5.30pm - what a difference a few hours of wild weather makes. 200,000 people are without power in the Hawkes Bay due to the failure of a substation, which is having a knock-on effect on the telecommunications network.
Here's the latest from the Telecommunications Forum's Paul Brislen:
"Generators and fuel are the two key issues now while we wait for the power companies to bring mains power back online. Spark, 2degrees and Vodafone have purchased 40-odd consumer-grade generators to fill in some of the need – these need refuelling every eight hours or so, which creates its own issues.
"Napier, for instance, has enough generators but no fuel deliveries owing to roads being impassable.
"Chorus reports damage to a number of fibre lines in and out of the region including the main connection between Napier and Taupo. There is some cellphone and landline coverage available within the Hawke’s Bay but it is very intermittent at this point.
"The telcos are working with NEMA to deliver satellite capability to the region. This should provide some connectivity out to the main network and allow limited calling and messaging while technicians work on the fibre lines. We hope to have more information on that front tomorrow."
126 cellsites are offline mostly due to power cuts.
Gisborne offline for both fixed and mobile service due to fibre cuts.
Taupo has been partially restored.
146 cellsites offline due to power cuts.
9 sites restored.
25 in Northland
19 in Auckland
19 in Waikato
31 in Central North Island and Coromandel
52 in Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Lower North Island.
Approximately 183 cellsites are offline
62 in Northland
18 in Auckland
43 Central North Island
60 Lower North Island
The lingering impact of flooding and high winds damaging electricity infrastructure which powers mobile cell sites and other key telecoms infrastructure is hampering efforts to get teams out to restore services.
The fibre-optic cable-based ultrafast broadband network, which supplies high-speed internet to towns and cities all over the country, seems to have been fairly resilient to the deluge of rain in the upper and eastern parts of the North Island.
“Chorus reports two fibre lines are damaged in the eastern part of the North Island - the Taupo to Napier line and one running across the north of the region,” Brislen reported.
“This is affecting mobile coverage in the Hawke’s Bay region for all providers on top of the power situation. Teams are working to locate the fault or faults on the line but this work is hampered both by the weather and by access to the lines. Staff safety is of paramount concern in such situations so the teams will be proceeding carefully.”
Fibre networks are designed to perform well in heavy rain and flooding events, though landslips damaging lines will lead to outages. Mobile cell sites are built to withstand high winds. If the fibre cables connecting them are knocked out, they can go offline, but the biggest threat to them is the power supply being cut for an extended period.
Power is key
The most important cell sites that connect a lot of people typically have generators that kick in to keep them powered when there’s disruption to the electricity grid. Most cellsites have back-up batteries that allow them to continue operating for hours at a time while power is restored or a generator can be connected to keep them powered on an ongoing basis.
But with over 400 cellsites still out between 2degrees, Spark and Vodafone and the bad weather continuing to hamper efforts to get to affected cellsites, outages will continue for a couple of days at least. There are also only enough generators to go around.
But, the biggest test to our telecommunications networks since the Christchurch earthquake seems to have shown voice and data services to have stood up well in terms of the core telco infrastructure. The crisis is far from over and the Hawkes Bay is the latest region reporting a growing number of utages, but the telcos seemed to have largely avoided the widespread communications outages that took weeks to restore in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland nearly a year ago, when heavy rainfall caused extensive flooding, knocking out fixed and mobile services. At one point, nearly 80,000 customers connected to the National Broadband Network were without service.
“In terms of Telstra I think there are some serious questions there about the way the network is designed, and whether the privatisation of Telstra went too far,” Byron Shire mayor Michael Lyon told a NSW Senate inquiry in the north coast floods. Some customers were offline for weeks following the floods.
The NSW Senate inquiry make the following recommendations relating to telecommunications services:
- Ensure there are sufficient redundancy options known and made available (for example, backup diesel generators, deployed temporary telecommunications facilities, etc.) to supply power to essential telecommunication infrastructure, alternative telecommunications infrastructure and water treatment facilities.
- Ensure that the telecommunication entities, electricity network providers and water treatment managers are using up to the minute, whole of catchment models to inform business continuity planning in the event of flooding.
- Facilitate cross carrier roaming arrangements between carriers and the public for basic text, voice and data during the period of emergency in areas directly affected by flood.
- Ensure all essential services are mandatory members of the Emergency Management Committees at state, regional and local levels.
- Ensure the state understands essential services redundancies and what emergency redundancy options are available from Australian Government agencies.
- Ensure, given the heavy reliance on essential services by community and government during a disaster, essential services loss, redundancy and build back better principles are exercised through emergency management committee processes annually.
Helping out customers
Spark would appear to win the award for going the furthest to help disconnected customers. It’s Connection Promise allows customers who have both their broadband and mobile with Spark to get extra data loaded onto their mobile if they can’t access broadband at home.
Vodafone has a similar offer: Vodafone frontline teams can offer support including extra minutes, texts and data to help keep customers connected. If your fixed line broadband has been disconnected and you have a VF mobile connection, we will give you ‘Always Connected’ for free – seven days’ worth of data for your phone to use as a hotspot until services come back.
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