Telcos, NBN Co work to reconnect bushfire-ravaged communities

Australia’s major telcos are dealing with fire-damaged infrastructure and power outages

Temporary Telstra infrastructure at Corryong.

Telstra, Optus and NBN Co are working to fix damaged infrastructure and reconnect communities in the wake of devastating bushfires that have affected services in New South Wales and Victorian communities.

Telstra has suffered critical damage to a range of infrastructure including mobile base stations and exchanges, although interruptions to mains power has been responsible for the largest portion of service outages.

Telstra has been working alongside emergency services, the Country Fire Authority, the Rural Fire Service and the recently deployed Australian Defence Force (ADF) to assess and mitigate damage to telecommunications infrastructure.

In NSW 13 Telstra sites have been affected, including four burnt-out mobile towers, while five of the telco’s sites in Victoria have been hit by fire. A Telstra spokesperson cautioned that the number of affected sites could change hour by hour because of the dynamic situation, and that some areas outside those 19 are suffering intermittent services.

In the NSW town of Jingellic, the Telstra base station was completely destroyed by fire. Telstra’s exchange and telecommunications mast in Mount Wandera have also suffered significant damage. The ADF, local council and Telstra yesterday felled some 20 burnt trees for safety reasons, enabling further assessment of the damage in the area.

Telstra told Computerworld that in Corryong, a Victorian town east of Albury-Wodonga, it had successfully restored services last week, with the telco’s team replacing burnt fibre before being evacuated from the area. 

Telstra has rolled out a range of measures to reconnect mobile services in fire-hit communities, including deploying a SatCOW (satellite cell on wheels) in Walwa, Victoria, and an emergency services cell on wheels in Mallacoota. The telco has also deployed MEOWs (mobile exchange on wheels) in Rappville and Killabakh Creek in NSW.

Optus has said that a “small part” of its network in south-eastern Australia was affected by fire damage and power outages. Yesterday CEO Allen Lew said that the Singtel subsidiary had used favourable weather conditions over the preceding 72 hours to top-up generators and deploy satellite base stations to affected areas.

“Our network remains resilient and our teams are dedicated to ensuring we restore services as quickly as possible and support customers and our own impacted employees during this challenging period,” Lew said. “At this time, we do not expect the financial impact of the bushfires to be material to Optus.”

Seventeen of the telco’s base stations went down, with seven damaged by fire and requiring full or partial rebuilds. Melbourne-to-Sydney fibre links that run through some fire-affected areas were unaffected, Lew said.

Vodafone said its “engineers are working around the clock to restore services in bushfire-affected communities following power outages and extensive damage to infrastructure in parts of NSW and Victoria.”

“We are working closely with emergency services to access sites, many of which are in exclusion zones where sites are simply not safe to access,” the telco said in a statement.

Vodafone customers in affected areas will not be able to access its 4G data and voice services. If Optus roaming is available in an area, customers will be able to roam and use 3G voice and data services, Vodafone said. Triple Zero emergency calls will still work on any mobile network.

The telco has already deployed emergency power supplies to three NSW sites and two in Victoria. It expects to restore services to Batemans Bay, Bergalia, Dignams Creek, Bega, Wolumla and Narooma “in the coming days”. However

However sites at Quaama, Cobargo, Mt Wandera Trig, Moruya, and Watertrough Hill in NSW, Maramingo Hill in Victoria, and Two Rocks in WA have suffered more extensive damage and will take longer to address.

NBN Co said its access network has suffered a number of fire-related outages. The government-owned network operator has a blog entry with a rolling update of fire impacts.

There are currently fire-related NBN outages at Longbeach Hill, Malua Bay and Nelligen on NSW’s south coast.

In Victoria NBN services have been restored in Corryong and Towong. Services have been restored in Khancoban, NSW. NBN Co said that a number of East Gippsland sites are relying on generator power but NBN services are generally available throughout Victoria. The company has a refuelling strategy for areas without mains power.

NBN Co has also rolled out satellite dishes that use its Sky Muster service to deliver free Wi-Fi at 21 evacuation centres in NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

“Our telecommunications operators are working to fix network outages as soon and safely as possible. I commend the network operators’ efforts in responding, which has included deploying temporary facilities to restore communications services for impacted communities, particularly those that are isolated,” communications minister Paul Fletcher MP said in a statement.

“Many of the outages are due to power supplies being cut off, and in some cases are the direct impact of fire on network infrastructure. The current fire situations across Australia have made access difficult and unsafe at some sites to assess and restore services.”

“It is important to remember that no form of telecommunications is one hundred per cent resilient, and people should not be relying on a single means of communications,”  the minister said.

“In many cases, a portable transistor radio with a spare set of batteries is a vital way to receive emergency information, in the event there is a loss of mains power or mobile coverage.”

Australia’s major telcos have unveiled a range of initiatives to support communities affected by the fires as well as emergency services workers.

Telstra CEO Andy Penn earlier this week announced that the telco was enabling free local, national and standard mobile calls on its payphone network.

The company is also offering free Internet access via payphones that are equipped with Telstra Air Wi-Fi hotspots. In addition, Telstra is offering unmetered access to a range of online emergency information services.

Penn revealed at the start of the month that Telstra would waive mobile phone bills for volunteer firefighters for December and January, with Optus and Vodafone also pledging to cover the cost of mobile services for firies.

The telcos have hardship policies for people affected by the bushfires. Telstra has also launched a payroll giving program, with the company pledging to match every dollar donated by its staff.

The Internet Association of Australia has launched an initiative seeking donations of equipment and expertise to help ISPs trying to get back online in fire-affected regions.

Amazon Web Services supports agencies

Cloud provider Amazon Web Services says it is providing in-kind technical support for government agencies aiding the response to the fires, including Geoscience and Digital Earth Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology, and state agencies such as Land Gate (WA), the Rural Fire Service (NSW), Fires Near Me app, SAFECOM (SA), and the South Australian Department Planning, Transport, and Infrastructure.

An Amazon blog entry revealed that the company was donating items including water, food, safety clothing, building materials through BlazeAid and other charitable organisations, as well as making cash donations.

Damage at Mount Wandera Telstra

Damage to Telstra infrastructure at Mount Wandera.

Damage at Mount Wandera Telstra

More damage to Telstra infrastructure at Mount Wandera.

Temporary Telstra infrastructure at Corryong. Telstra

Temporary Telstra infrastructure at Corryong.

Telstra technicians roll out new fibre at Corryong. Telstra

Telstra technicians roll out new fibre at Corryong.


Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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