Australian telcos prepare to keep comms up in extreme weather season

Telecommunications providers are ready for the extreme weather season with network checks and updates to more temporary services units available in areas that are likely to be affected.

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The severe weather season is fast approaching, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has warned of above-average cyclone season amidst other common issues such as flooding and bushfires. Some of the critical services that get disrupted during the extreme weather are telecommunications and power.

The Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Enquiry, released in August 2020, found that telecommunications was the service most valued by the community and also critical for emergency services. Among the 76 recommendations, one was that the state government to work closely with relevant bodies and providers to minimise communication outages and extend basic communications coverage during bushfires. This has put some pressure on telcos to ensure sufficient redundancy options among other points.

Most telecommunications providers already did year-round checks of their networks, but this is now something on the agenda for all, and some are putting extra measures in place to ensure connectivity.

Infrastructure upgrade and preparations for the 2021-22 season

BOM has warned of an average, or slightly above average, cyclone season, with an increased risk of widespread flooding over the east and north, and the risk of severe thunderstorms, heat waves, and bushfires.

As a response, NBN has announced a temporary network infrastructure that may be deployed, where it is safe, into communities following emergency events to provide temporary internet services at community hubs and relief centres.

It has 58 additions to this year's temporary infrastructure including multitechnology trailers (MTTs), network on wheels, wireless mast trailers, and hybrid power cubes, which will be stationed in various locations across the country for potential deployment when needed.

These efforts are partially funded through the Australian government’s Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters (STAND) package, which offered grants of as much as $7.7 million. With the funding, NBN continues to roll out its Disaster Satellite Service, with units being installed at designated emergency management sites and evacuation centres across the country.

Optus and Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, have conducted a country-wide analysis of the telco's infrastructure to assess where there is risk of damage and where upgrades could reduce vulnerability to future bushfire events. The study focused on the impacts of embers, radiation, and flame around Optus's sites and equipment. As a result, Optus is implementing the recommended mitigations at two of its sites in Victoria: Seville East and Dixons Creek. These mitigations include implementing ember attack protections, nearby consequential fire threat removal, and nearby tree threat reduction.

Keeping communications services running during power disruptions

An internet connection needs electricity so routers and modems can work, and power outages will likely take place because power lines have been damaged or because of disconnection to prevent from further complications in the network. People may be able to use a smartphone to connect to a cell tower if they remain working, but having a battery-based charger or other portable power source is advised to maintain connectivity.

Because power outages can affect the infrastructure providers, Optus revealed in June 2021 a new battery that ensures transmission hubs can provide mobile sites up to 20 extra hours of continuity when the transmission hub’s main grid power fails. Optus has already installed the new batteries in 40 sites and have plans for another 200 to be rolled out by April 2022.

Telstra's towers also have batteries or generators available that will kick in when the standard source of energy is disconnected and provide as many as four hours of power. Telstra has been replacing batteries at more than 2,100 sites since July 2019, and will continue doing so through the 2022 fiscal year.

Other extreme-weather upgrades and disaster-relief efforts

Telstra has a fleet of temporary network recovery units that are on standby year-round and ready for deployment after an emergency to provide temporary connectivity, using connecting poles and antennas to either fibre or satellite data links.

TPG Telecom is using the STAND grant to improve its mobile network resilience by deploying additional temporary portable coverage and power systems to sites affected by natural disasters. TPG Telecom also received funding to provide longer-lasting battery backup power for its mobile base stations built under the Mobile Black Spot Program.

“Another area of focus has been improving communications and coordination between federal and state governments, emergency services agencies, the telco sector, and other stakeholders, including power companies," a TPG Telecom spokesperson told Computerworld Australia.

Aussie Broadband's head office is based in regional Victoria and the business, and its employees have experienced the result of the extreme weather as part of their daily lives. The company has developed a bushfire disaster mapping software that maps customers’ addresses from available emergency services data. "We now automatically contact these customers (both business and residential) to offer them our support package, with follow up staff calls where necessary," managing director Phillip Britt told Computerworld Australia.

Under the STAND funding, Optus will enhance its current fleet with seven satellite cells on trailers and seven cells on wheels for use in delivery of telecommunication services during major national disaster events.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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