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Griffin on Tech: Our telecoms network failed us when we needed it most

Peter Griffin, Editor. 17 February 2023, 1:01 pm

Amid the mounting chaos caused by Cyclone Gabrielle, our telecommunications network appeared to be holding up reasonably well.

“Our networks are largely undamaged but there are outages due to a lack of power supply,” Paul Brislen of the Telecommunications Forum emailed journalists at 10.08 am on Tuesday morning.

As he was writing that update, the situation was deteriorating as the cumulative impact of all that water spilling over river banks and surging across flood plains took its toll. Bridges collapsed taking fibre optic cables with them. The Redclyffe electricity substation in Napier was swamped, cutting power to tens of thousands of homes - and hundreds of cell sites and fibre cabinets.


In that Tuesday morning update, Brislen noted, two fibre lines owned by Chorus were out, one on the Taupo to Napier line and the other running across the north of the region. Several more key fibre connections would be taken out in the following hours. Very quickly, the pockets of outages affecting dozens of customers became widespread communication dead zones.

That had a devastating impact on efforts to communicate and coordinate emergency response efforts. In some cases families wouldn’t hear anything from their loved ones for the next two days. Years of underinvestment in infrastructure in the regions meant that when the power grid and the roading networks went down, so too did the telecommunications that are heavily reliant on them.

The telcos should be commended for working together as swiftly as possible to restore services, they pulled out all the stops, as the Twitter updates from Vodafone chief executive Jason Paris illustrate.

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But part of the post-flood conversation about our infrastructure failings will need to include a conversation about how we make sure we have more resilient communications in future disasters.

The Aussie experience

The Aussies went through exactly the same thing last year when major flooding hit northern New South Wales and southern Queensland causing A$2.7 billion in infrastructure damage and $500 million in agricultural losses. The financial toll from Gabrielle is likely to eclipse that.

The deal was the same across the Tasman - power outages knocked out communications across swathes of territory. There wasn’t enough redundancy - backup diesel generators, temporary mobile sites, and satellite capacity, to reinstate communications quickly. Even getting to crippled infrastructure was challenging, with flood waters posing a safety risk to engineers.

John Campbell, reporting from Gisborne for One News, was clearly angry last night that telecoms outages meant Eftpos and ATMs were unavailable in the town, meaning residents had to scrape together the cash to buy urgently needed supplies.

“Similar to the 2019–20 bushfires, the loss of telecommunications services caused the most distress to communities because it affected their ability to request flood rescues, communicate with family and friends, provide warnings and access post-emergency information,” the NSW government inquiry into floods noted.

Our communities, local and central government and the telcos, will need to have a discussion collectively about infrastructure resilience and redundancy because none of them can address it in isolation and there will be more extreme weather events to come. Napier, in particular, paid dearly for poor infrastructure planning. Transpower knew that the Redclyffe substation was a “critical” risk in a major flood. Critical infrastructure will need to be moved off floodplains.

Hubs of help

One aspect of the emergency response that seemed to work well was the community hubs that sprung up in conjunction with Civil Defence, which became indispensable centres for flood victims to access food, shelter, medical attention and telecommunications services.

I can see a situation in future where such hubs become part of our infrastructure, storing satellite equipment, generators, fuel and other supplies. Increased use of solar energy schemes to power local government buildings would not only help councils reduce their carbon footprint, but offer a backup power supply in emergencies.

SpaceX Satlink connections came into their own, as they did during Australia’s floods, such is the ease with which they can be set up. There’s a good argument for having more of them in reserve. Surely a deal can be done with Elon Musk so that not-for-profits and emergency services can defer paying the monthly subscription when they aren’t in use.

The NSW inquiry recommended that mobile network operators cooperate on a roaming arrangement so that, in an emergency, users could access services via an alternative provider. That’s worth considering, but our mobile networks have a fair amount of overlap and seemed to have been equally affected by power outages, so I’m not sure how useful that would be.

More to come

An outcome of the NSW inquiry was to expand the Fires Near Me app, which was aimed at bushfire alerts, to become a general Hazards Near Me information system. That was put in place just this week and is something we could replicate here, creating a version of the GeoNet, but for easy access to localised hazard information and advice for those in need, as a nimbler way that accessing Civil Defence and council websites.

Our rural communities, in particular, showed over the past week how they can come together to support each other in times of crisis. That’s been humbling to observe. But we can’t tolerate a situation where they regularly find themselves in that dire situation. With more frequent extreme weather events predicted, we’ve got to do better on infrastructure resilience and that goes for the telecommunications infrastructure that is so important in times of crisis. 


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