Northern Rivers locals still angry with telcos over flood response

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Northern Rivers locals still angry with telcos over flood response

NSW senate inquiry told of extensive network damage.

Telecommunications carriers are still the targets of criticism in the ongoing NSW senate inquiry into this year’s north coast floods.

The floods cut power to the network across a wide swathe of the Northern Rivers region, and caused widespread damage that kept some customers offline for weeks.

Byron Shire mayor Michael Lyon singled out “telecommunication networks going down and being out for weeks during and post flood,” which also hampered inter-agency communication.

“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,” he told the inuqiry (pdf).

“I am just interested to know how that could be improved so that we are … more resilient for the future.”

Representing BayFM Community Radio, Nick Richardson pointed out that the telecommunications outages had knock-on effects to broadcasters, preventing them from disseminating emergency information.

Peak body Local Government NSW (LGNSW) said in its submission to the inquiry the long network outages left communities feeling vulnerable and frustrated.

“Residents were unable to access timely and reliable emergency messaging and
information on transport, road closures and ongoing risks to safety,” it said.

“Internet connectivity issues after the emergency also affected the ability of residents and
businesses to pay for certain goods and services (such as purchase of water during temporary period of water insecurity) and to request reimbursement via business grants” 

LGNSW wants “better preparation and planning” for telecommunications, especially around powering equipment, and faster network restoration.

Telstra's post-mortum: a network in ruins

Telstra’s submission (pdf) to the inquiry demonstrated vividly the catastrophic scale of flood’s impact on its facilities.

The carrier described impacts ranging from water and landslides damaging equipment; fibre optic cable breaks; and “extended” loss of mains power. In some cases, the submission states, buildings and towers had to be rebuilt.

The flood also damaged bridges in the region, and those bridges carry fibre ducts across rivers, Telstra said.

This washed-out bridge took fibre ducts with it. Image: Telstra

Telstra’s Lismore exchange suffered serious damage, since the flooding inundated transmission equipment on the first floor of the building.

Flooding at Telstra's Lismore exchange reached the red line. Image: Telstra

In returning the exchange to service, the carrier had to replace that transmission equipment. It took the opportunity to upgrade the equipment and relocate it to the second floor.

That effort could not take place, however, until the floods had receded, safety inspections carried out (including ensuring that the backup batteries were isolated), remediation such as asbestos removal completed, and power restored.

The work isn’t complete even now: some customers remain on temporary backhaul while Telstra finishes rebuilding the transmission service.

The carrier said it deployed temporary facilities, including its COW portable base statations, SatCOWs (using satellite backhaul where terrestrial backhaul is damaged), repeater trailers, and MEOWs (mobile exchange on wheels), as quickly as possible, but this was dependent on access to sites.

A Telstra spokesperson told iTnews key elements offered to the committee in its submission included "the necessity for us being able to safely access affected areas ... these particular floods cut access to some towns for well over a week after the rain stopped".

"Residents as well as businesses and even local authorities needing to consider their own preparedness for a loss of telecommunications during a disaster," Telstra said.

The submission added that in some cases, such as when a bridge has been lost, it remains reliant on temporary facilities until that infrastructure has been rebuilt.

The submission also provides insight into the time windows Telstra uses in emergency events.

It seeks to restore services to remote communities and government emergency networks on a “three day time horizon”.

A three-week time horizon is assigned to deploying temporary infrastructure, fibre cable repair, and infrastructure repair and impact assessment.

The carrier seeks to have permanent infrastructure repairs – as the submission put it, “restoring the network to the desired longer-term state” – completed within a three month time horizon.

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