During the course of the inquiry, public broadcasters and Telstra discussed
their ability to broadcast and maintain telecommunication networks,
respectively, during an emergency.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Special Broadcasting
Service (SBS) raised difficulties associated with damage to infrastructure caused
by natural disasters which have the potential to disrupt broadcasting. Telstra also
described damage to infrastructure as a result of natural disasters and the
steps the company takes to maintain communication across networks during these
times. Both the public broadcasters and Telstra identified power outages as a
The concerns raised in relation to maintaining telecommunications during
emergencies can be divided into four key areas related to infrastructure:
- maintaining radio broadcasting and phone coverage when power is
unavailable and / or there has been damage to fixed infrastructure;
- the importance of built-in redundancies in infrastructure systems
to help networks cope during and after an emergency;
- transportable technology used to maintain telecommunications when
fixed infrastructure has been damaged; and
- the advantages and disadvantages associated with overhead versus
subterranean telecommunication cabling.
These matters are discussed below.
Resilience of broadcasting systems
The ABC identified the resilience of transmission and distribution infrastructure
as essential to its ability to provide emergency communications.
The ABC focused on the role of local radio in providing information to
regional Australian communities during times of emergency given the wide
geographic area over which ABC local radio services are broadcast.
The ABC voiced particular concern about the vulnerability of radio transmission
infrastructure during natural disasters:
Local Radio is broadcast on some 240 transmitters around the
country, as well as some 130 self-help installations. While all of the
metropolitan services and most major regional services have a stand-by program
source (such as a satellite feed) and standby power (emergency generators)
available, this is not the case with many of the transmitters covering smaller
communities in regional Australia. Indeed, some Local Radio transmitters
covering major regional populations centres—including the Gold Coast,
Toowoomba, Emerald, Albury/Wodonga, Bega, Orange, Grafton, Tamworth, Glen
Innes, Kempsey, Broken Hill, Horsham and Karratha—have no stand-by program source
available. Similarly, many transmitters covering populations of around 10,000
or fewer people do not have standby power available. A major capital injection
would be required to address these shortcomings in the network and secure the
services in times of emergencies.
Mr Hugh James, Manager, Transmission Services, SBS stated that
maintaining continuous service at major transmission sites supported the SBS's
ability to provide timely information to communities. In particular, Mr James
highlighted that continuous service required access to fuel, specifically
diesel fuel, when generators were being used:
Mr James: ...Both the ABC and ourselves run gensets [electrical
generators] at our major transmission sites so that when the power fails we can
stay on air. The limitation is how much fuel we can store on site and how long
they can run.
Senator BACK: Are these gensets, particularly in the
fly-away transmitters [portable transmitters], which I imagine are the ones you
are talking about, run on diesel or petrol?
Mr James: Diesel generally, and most of them are on
the existing transmitter sites, not just on the fly-aways.
Senator BACK: What is the problem with underground
Mr James: The problem we have is limited capacity—24
hours typically, some of them up to a week—and the need to replenish that and
refresh that diesel. The more critical question is a short supply in the event
of a long power failure. Once we get past the point of capacity, we need
supply. In any emergency where there is a widespread power failure there is
high demand for diesel fuel. At the moment, broadcasters have no higher call on
that than the local trucking operator or the local hospital, although I have no
objection to the hospital getting their fair share.
Senator BACK: So you would not object to this
committee making a recommendation that, in circumstances like that, you would
join the highest priority for supply of diesel fuel.
Mr James: I would like to see that as a requirement,
Senator BACK: It would specify diesel fuel, because I
would not want petrol tankers going into areas.
Mr James: No, it is diesel fuel that is the critical
The ABC agreed, while highlighting the extent to which AM radio
broadcasting is a key component of its own emergency communications strategy:
I would endorse Mr James's statements and also say that that
would be an important issue from our perspective as well. We have found the
resilience of AM radio broadcasting during an emergency to be one of the key
aspects of our role. The two greatest problems that can occur are that, first,
the site is hit by the disaster itself, such as a fire or flood, and therefore
you lose the transmitter; but the far more likely one, the longer an emergency
goes on, is that a power supply problem will occur and once you lose
electricity you go to the generator backup and you have a fuel problem. I know
during the Brisbane floods one of our real issues for a few days was just this
point, of wrangling to make sure that we had a fuel supply in the situation
that power is turned off in central Brisbane and we were not able to transmit.
So the issue of having access like that is of critical importance, I agree.
The resilience of the broadcasting system was also raised in terms of
limited bandwith and mobile phone coverage. The ABC noted that limited bandwith
in regional areas had impacted on access to information:
Limited network bandwidth can and has delayed content
delivery during emergencies. Most ABC regional stations are currently limited
to 1Mb/second network links, which are too narrow to handle high volumes of
network traffic. Reporters using domestic internet connections in the field
have also encountered local congestion during emergencies, making it more
difficult to access the internet and in turn affecting information gathering
Resilience and redundancy of telecommunications infrastructure
The design of telecommunications infrastructure, and the extent to which
it can withstand damage during natural disasters, was explained by Telstra:
Telecommunications network architecture is normally designed
to deliver traffic from individual premises to be collected and transported
back up into higher levels of the network. The design rules used in developing
such network architecture will determine the degree of resilience and
survivability against fibre cuts, damaging weather events, and optical
equipment failures. In all network implementations, final design decisions that
determine the level of resilience need to be balanced against how the application
of these rules will affect network performance and costs.
Telstra noted the inevitability of natural disasters and the subsequent
'unavoidable' impact on communications infrastructure.
Telstra stated that '...such impacts can be reduced if networks are planned and
operated with this inevitability in mind'
and described the company's experience during the summer of 2010–11 by way of
While Telstra’s networks and communications operations did
suffer damage as a result of the various disasters during the summer of 2010/11,
its fixed, mobile and managed radio service networks and associated disaster recovery
operations and processes operated very effectively. Telstra staff worked
quickly and effectively and in many cases around the clock to restore services
efficiently, once it was safe for our people to access impacted areas. In many
cases the existence of multiple networks in affected areas meant that
alternative forms of communication were still able to be maintained.
In addition to the power supply issues raised by the ABC and SBS, the
importance of maintaining power supply for telecommunications networks was
flagged by Telstra. Telstra stated:
Power loss is a very significant issue confronted by Telstra
in maintaining the operation of its networks during extreme weather events,
including fires, flooding and cyclones.
Key elements of Telstra’s networks rely on a continuous
supply of power. These include exchanges and mobile base stations. If the power
supply is disrupted, functionality may be lost to that equipment, and to the
services supported by that equipment.
In response to power supply difficulties, Telstra recommended that
'[s]ome consideration may need to be given to additional strategies to better preserve
the supply of electricity in the event of disasters'.
The effect National Broadband Network (NBN) technology may have on
network resilience was also raised during the course of the inquiry:
Future communication technologies, such as the National
Broadband Network (NBN), have the potential to influence how emergencies and
natural disasters are managed. Much will depend on the network design which
impacts the resilience of the network in the face of natural disasters.
Specifically, the effect of NBN technology on resilience was associated
with the fibre-optic cable network which the NBN will roll out and which
requires power supplies to be maintained at both ends of the network.
Telstra explained that in this regard the NBN differed from Telstra's existing
copper network 'where a standard landline phone draws the power it needs from
the wires that connect the phone to the network':
As telecommunications fixed access networks evolve from
copper to fibre optics it is important to understand the impact on service
availability during power outages. As stated above, all telecommunications
networks need power to operate. Fibre optic networks are no exception and
require power to be available at both the switch and the customer ends of the network
to remain operative. This is different to the existing Telstra copper network
The Fire and Emergency Services Authority of WA (FESA) agreed that
'power supply issues' associated with the NBN need to be considered.
Information provided to the committee during the inquiry about the
resilience and redundancy of telecommunications infrastructure also included
discussion of overhead and subterranean cabling, as well as the use of transportable
infrastructure to maintain communication networks following a natural disaster.
Overhead versus subterranean
There was some discussion during the inquiry about the placement of telecommunications
cabling either overhead or below ground and the differing ways in which these
are able to withstand natural disasters.
In support of subterranean cabling, Telstra made the following comments:
While no network will be able to withstand the full force of
intense and prolonged natural disasters, a critical consideration in network
design is the location of cables. In Telstra’s experience, underground cables
are generally more resilient in the face of natural disasters. By way of
example the severity of heat levels experienced in the Victorian Black Saturday
bushfires was such that there was some (albeit limited) direct fire damage to
optical fibre located within pits. While the vast majority of the network withstood
the intensity of those fires, some 18 pits were impacted. Aerial cabling is
also particularly vulnerable in cyclones and high winds. In flood situations,
poles may be washed away, leading to aerial cabling across creeks and rivers
Telstra subsequently noted that in determining which cabling options
were most appropriate it was necessary to consider both practical matters, such
as the ability to lay cables in certain terrain, and the benefits of using
underground cabling in flood and cyclone prone areas:
The vast majority of Telstra’s cabling is laid underground,
whether copper cables or fibre (typically laid inside conduits and pits).
Generally, aerial cables are used when the terrain is not suitable for
underground cabling. As an example, where the terrain is solid rock it is not practical
to lay underground cabling. In some areas it is not possible to lay an
underground cable without an unacceptable environmental impact and so aerial
cables are used. Installation of underground or aerial cables will be subject to
all necessary approvals being obtained for the deployment. Telstra’s experience
is that underground cabling is more robust than aerial cabling even in areas
prone to flooding from cyclones as the combination of excessive rain and wind,
especially in the cyclone season, can cause considerable damage to aerial
In relation to the NBN, the placement of cables was raised by FESA. FESA
emphasised the importance of considering the types of natural disasters
experienced in a particular location when deciding whether cables should be
laid overhead or underground:
It is understood that in Tasmania the Broadband Network
cables are above ground which creates problems in a bushfire, storms etc, highlighting
the need for a reliable power source. As has been demonstrated in WA, above
ground communications infrastructure is vulnerable in the event of a significant
natural event. Whilst not immune from impact or failure, those assets that are
purpose built for their operating environment, and having regard to the likely
events that may impact upon that environment, will stand a greater chance of
The role of transportable infrastructure
Transportable infrastructure can be deployed following a natural
disaster to maintain communication networks even where fixed infrastructure has
sustained damage. In this way, transportable infrastructure has the potential
to bolster the resilience of telecommunications systems in times of emergency.
The committee heard about different types of transportable
infrastructure and the ways in which these can increase the speed at which
services are restored to areas affected by natural disasters:
Telstra’s experience with disasters has led to the
development of innovative technology solutions, such as Cells on Wheels (COWs),
Satellite Cells on Wheels (SatCOWs) and Mobile Exchanges on Wheels (MEOW).
These solutions help restore services quickly to disaster impacted communities,
and assist in the overall recovery effort.
A COW is a temporary mobile base station that provides temporary
coverage if a mobile site is lost; alternatively it can provide a temporary
expansion of mobile coverage.
A SatCOW is ideal for locations where there is no terrestrial
backhaul network or power is available – it provides Telstra Next GM network
coverage. It is highly portable, being able to be transported in a standard 4WD
or light aircraft or helicopter, and can be set up within 1.5 hours. In the
aftermath of Cyclone Yasi a SatCOW was deployed to Palm Island, restoring communications
in 24 hours.
A COW and a MEOW can operate using generators, batteries or
mains power to enable the quick installation of temporary communication
solutions, especially for those communities hardest hit by the disaster. A
SatCOW has the benefit of being able to operate even if there is no
transmission or power.
Telstra informed the committee that it had deployed transportable
infrastructure during the summer of 2010-11:
It is certainly the case that our networks and operations
suffered damage as a result of the various disasters during the summer, but our
fixed, mobile and managed radio service networks and associated disaster
recovery operations and processes operated very effectively...Our standard
disaster response processes included a range of measures to help customers stay
in touch with family and friends when normal services had been affected...We
used our COWs, SatCOWs and the other technology—mobile exchange on wheels, to
give its full title.
The deployment of this technology, together with other elements of Telstra's
emergency procedures meant that, in Telstra's view, 'its fixed, mobile and
managed radio service networks and associated disaster recovery operations and
processes operated very effectively'.
The fallibility of infrastructure, including the NBN, was acknowledged
by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE).
With respect to the resilience and protection of critical communications
infrastructure, DBCDE stated:
Infrastructure providers have primary responsibility for
managing, and responding to, emergencies and disasters which impact on their
services. The department supports the work of critical infrastructure providers
through its secretariat services for the Communications Sector Group, as well
as through monitoring the work of the communications industry.
The Communications Sector Group (CSG) comprises representatives from
relevant Commonwealth, state and territory government agencies as well as the
owners and operators of critical infrastructure in the telecommunications,
broadcasting, international submarine communications cables and postal sectors'.
The committee was informed that:
The CSG has conducted numerous discussion exercises since
2006 which were developed to raise awareness of the impact of communications
during emergencies and build resilience for future prevention, preparedness,
response and recovery activities. A key outcome has been the increased
awareness of the interdependencies within the communications sector (for instance,
broadcasting reliance on telecommunications) and across the broader critical infrastructure
sectors (for instance, the communications sector‘s reliance on the supply of mains
Members of the CSG have individual business continuity and
disaster recovery plans to respond to, and mitigate, the impacts of an
emergency or disaster.
In addition to the work of the CSG, the Commonwealth Government's
Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy (CIRS) recognises that much 'of
Australia’s critical infrastructure is privately owned or operated on a
For this reason, the federal government has sought to partner with
infrastructure owners and operators 'to enhance the resilience of critical
- sharing information;
- raising awareness of dependencies and vulnerabilities; and
- facilitating collaboration to address impediments.
The CIRS continues:
The Australian Government has established the Trusted Information
Sharing Network (TISN) for Critical Infrastructure Resilience (CIR) as its
primary mechanism to build a partnership approach between business and
government for CIR. The Australian Government has the unique ability to bring
critical infrastructure sectors together in a non-competitive environment to
discuss and address vulnerabilities within sectors on a national or
cross-jurisdictional basis as well as enabling the identification of
cross-sector dependencies. While the business-government partnership is the
cornerstone of the CIR approach, there are a number of other important
imperatives that contribute to the collective effort.
This Strategy has six complementary strategic imperatives to
build CIR and achieve the Australian Government’s aim and objectives:
- operate an effective business-government partnership with
critical infrastructure owners and operators
- develop and promote an organisational resilience body of knowledge
and a common understanding of organisational resilience
- assist owners and operators of critical infrastructure to
identify, analyse and manage cross-sectoral dependencies
- provide timely and high quality policy advice on issues relating
to critical infrastructure resilience
- implement the Australian Government’s Cyber Security Strategy to
maintain a secure, resilient and trusted
- electronic operating environment, including for critical
infrastructure owners and operators, and
- support the critical infrastructure resilience programs delivered
by Australian States and Territories, as agreed and as appropriate.
Regarding the NBN and its power supply needs, DBCDE explained that the
federal government had instructed NBN Co 'to deploy battery backup capabilities
within all network termination devices (NTDs) connected within the fibre
The department continued:
During a mains power failure, the battery backup is expected
to allow the end-user to receive telephony services for up to five hours. As an
additional safeguard, when battery runs down to approximately half its
capacity, power is automatically cut-off. This reserve would then be manually
activated by the end-user to enable an emergency call to be made.
The committee recognises the importance of maintaining telecommunications
systems during and after emergencies, and the challenges that both broadcasters
and telecommunications organisations face in doing so.
Access to power is essential. Given the important role of ABC local
radio (in particular) in broadcasting emergency warnings and information, and
the difficulties the public broadcaster can face when sourcing diesel fuel to
power radio transmission sites, the committee is sympathetic to the ABC's
request that consideration be given to granting priority access to fuel by
public broadcasters. The committee therefore recommends that the government
consider—without causing detriment to ESOs—granting priority fuel access to
public broadcasters during emergencies for the purpose of broadcasting
emergency warning and information.
4.33 The committee recommends the government consider granting public
broadcasters priority access to fuel during times of emergency for the purpose
of broadcasting emergency warnings and information, and in a way that does not
impede the ability of emergency service organisations to access fuel.
The resilience of telecommunications infrastructure to withstand natural
disasters and the availability of back-up systems, such as COWs, SatCOWs and
MEOWs, when fixed infrastructure fails determine how well communications
networks can be maintained at these times. The frequency with which natural
disasters occur in Australia means that resilience and redundancy will continue
to be key features of Australia's telecommunications infrastructure systems.
The committee notes the work being conducted by the federal government
and the telecommunications industry through the Communications Sector Group and
the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy. The committee encourages the
government to work with industry to examine the impact of recent natural
disasters on telecommunications infrastructure to identify weaknesses and areas
for improvement so that disruptions to telecommunications networks during and
after future emergencies can be kept to a minimum.
The committee commends Telstra's use of transportable infrastructure
during recent natural disasters to maintain telephone networks. The committee encourages
telecommunications companies to continue to develop technology such as this for
use into the future.
With respect to the NBN, the committee notes that NBN infrastructure
will face similar challenges to existing networks when it comes to withstanding
natural disasters. The NBN will, therefore, be susceptible to damage and
failure during an emergency in much the same way as existing telecommunications
Senator Mary Jo Fisher
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