Australia’s bushfires leave operators struggling to get back

Australia’s bushfires leave operators struggling to get back online

14 January 2020 | Natalie Bannerman

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Since the New South Wales (NSW) government officially declared a state of emergency in December, Australia has been in the grips of one of the worse bushfires in recent memory.

To date it has caused an estimated 10.7 million hectares worth of damage, destroyed over 5,900 buildings and sadly the deaths of 28 people. As first responders and emergency services tend to things like supplying clean water, food and electricity, one often overlooked utility is telecoms.

In disasters such as this, people need to contact loved ones or emergency services, and it is increasingly important the telecoms networks have the much-needed redundancy to stay. The picture is pretty grim across the country, with all major telcos reporting damage of some kind.

Staff of the wholesale-only National Broadband Network (NBN) were on the ground from 5 January installing Sky Muster satellite dishes at 12 evacuation centres in NSW and Victoria, offering free Wifi. As of 11 January, the company reported that a number of its services in NSW and Victoria had been affected – largely due to mains power outages. It has since then deployed a number of generators on standby.

For Telstra’s part, the company has begun rolling out assistance packages for customers affected by the fires which gives customers access to “free and interim services during the recovery period, in addition to providing the wider community with free calls and free Telstra Air Wifi through local payphones”. In some cases Telstra staff were prevented from reaching affected areas to restore service but the company is working with emergency services to ensure its teams have access as soon as it is safe to do so.

Optus, a subsidiary of Singtel and the second largest telco in Australia, has reported a number of impacted services across NSW and Victoria – including tower sites that now require rebuilding. Optus has had to install temporary mobile base stations in their place. It has also deployed Sat Cat, a satellite cell attached to a trailer that uses satellite transmissions for limited coverage range, without the need for infrastructure.

Vodafone Australia reports “extensive damage and therefore longer restoration times” to the affected parts of its network. As of 13 January, it still has no service in NSW areas of Bell, Cobargo, Mogo and Moruya, plus Maramingo Hill and Waygara in Victoria and Two Rocks in Western Australia.

All four operators have been zero-rating consumer access to emergency websites and are also zero-rating firefighters’ mobile bills, and providing access to free satellite Wifi. According to to Monica Collier, senior research manager at IDC, “if there was a considerable material impact to revenue from the bushfires, it would be questionable if the telcos would be giving away more revenue.”

[The destruction caused by the bushfires - Image by Paul Budde of Mt Wilson on 13.01.2020]

Speaking exclusively to Capacity, Axicom, a leading Australian wireless infrastructure provider, said that damage was minimal, with service outage caused by power loss.

“As the owner of 2,000 mobile sites nationally, the recent extensive bushfires and extreme weather conditions and the impact for our customers have been a major concern and focus for Axicom,” the company told us. “With approximately 40 of our sites directly impacted by fires, we have now inspected all of these sites and report there has been minimal damage to any of our site infrastructure and towers. The main impact of the bushfires at many of these 40 sites has been the loss of mobile coverage caused by the loss of mains power, as a result of mobile communications equipment not being capable of operating without power, and from restricted access due to road and track closures for safety reasons or blocked by fallen debris.”

Although the fires still rage on, analysts have already begun investigating how much this will cost the telecoms sector to recover from.

Capacity spoke to Collier further about the financial impact of the fires, and as she previously indicated it doesn’t appear to be as substantial as we might think.  

Despite the reported damage, Optus has announced that, while the fires have impacted parts of its mobile network, at this point in time it does not expect there to be a material financial impact. In turn, Telstra has also lost mobile sites as well as fixed exchanges and although Telstra hasn’t made an official statement, a source has told the Sydney Morning Herald the cost could be in the “tens of millions of dollars”.


[The destruction caused by the bushfires - Image by Paul Budde of Mt Wilson on 13.01.2020]

Collier told Capacity: “This is a fairly speculative comment but what it does show is the potential difference in financial impact between when mobile sites are damaged and fixed exchanges are damaged. The lower impact, easier (and probably cheaper) to fix mobile sites compared to the financial impact of an entire exchange full of kit burning down. It’s another feather in the cap for those people that favour the idea of a fully mobile world without relying on physical pieces of wire, particularly in the last mile.”

Collier echoed Optus’s assessment of “not material” at the current time, when it comes to the financial outlook of telcos’ revenue. She added: “The areas where service has been lost – and therefore service revenue – are sparsely populated from a telco customer perspective.”

As far of the road to recovery, she says that the “upfront waiting time will be dependent on power, and access to sites” while in heavily populated areas, “a lack of access to refill generators or bring in cell sites-on-wheels or satellite base stations that continue into the medium term could ultimately have an impact on revenue” but this isn’t the case present.

In the long-term, said Collier, telcos, along with other infrastructure providers, need to be considering the impact of climate change on their businesses and start planning for this.

“More fires, floods or other climate-related events mean more adverse events for infrastructure providers, incurring more outages, more cost to fix, more health and safety risk to employees. Telcos need to both consider how they will manage the additional risk as well as play their part in reducing their own – and their supply chains’ – impact on the climate.”

One commentator on the importance of such emergency network is Paul Budde, telecom analyst consultant. Over the years Budde has actively lobbied for the development of a national telecoms emergency plan in Australia.

Speaking to Australia’s broadcasting service ABC, he said: “What you need is a national emergency telecommunications plan – get our telecommunications companies together and then we can find solutions. With this crisis at hand, we can get the government to start considering these long-term options and long-term funding … for communications safety in rural and regional areas.”  

Interestingly, Budde believes there may be a case for regions of Australia to have fibre, fully buried underground, an expensive exercise that operators may be reluctant to pay for.

“While that might be cost costly … I think on the other side, the social, economic benefits are as important, if not more important in situations like this,” he added.

In a blog post, Budde outlined several suggestions for creating this much-needed emergency telecoms plan. It includes:

  • radio communications interoperability;
  • fuel supply to mobile towers;
  • maintain copper infrastructure in communities that are subject to bushfires and floods;
  • provide network roaming in emergency areas;
  • equip all fire stations with satellite phones.

“If we bring the telecoms experts in this country together, they will come up with other plans and possibilities,” he concluded.