NBN may leave lives at risk in bush­fires and floods, ex­perts warn

The Guardian Australia - - News - Melissa Davey

Lives may be lost in mass-emer­gen­cies in­clud­ing flood, bush­fire and cy­clone events be­cause the NBN net­work will be left vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing sig­nif­i­cant power out­ages, dis­as­ter man­age­ment ex­perts have warned NBN Co.

Emer­gency co­or­di­na­tors in dis­as­ter-prone re­gions fear the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to run fi­bre op­tics largely to-the-node in­stead of to-the-premises in a bid to save money and roll out the NBN faster will leave com­mu­ni­ties com­pletely cut off in a power out­age.

Un­like fi­bre-to-the-premises, where fi­bre is con­nected all the way to the home, fi­bre-to-the-node means hun­dreds of prop­er­ties will re­main con­nected via a tra­di­tional cop­per line from a nearby node.

Each node re­quires its own power sup­ply, which could be lost if the elec­tric­ity grid drops out dur­ing a dis­as­ter such as a flood.

Al­though the nodes have backup bat­ter­ies, they will only last for be­tween three and nine hours, de­pend­ing on de­mand.

Townsville dis­as­ter man­age­ment co­or­di­na­tor Alan Rogers said once peo­ple’s mo­bile phone bat­ter­ies ran out, they would have no means of recharg­ing their de­vices..

Trop­i­cal Cy­clone Oswald, which caused se­vere storms and flood­ing in coastal re­gions of Queens­land in 2013, left some ar­eas with­out power for a week, he said.

“If the power goes down and the bat­tery runs flat then peo­ple in their homes will not have an in­ter­net con­nec­tion and if their phone, if its con­nected to the NBN, it will not op­er­ate,” said Rogers, who was one of a group of Queens­land dis­as­ter co­or­di­na­tors who out­lined their con­cerns to NBN Co last week in the lat­est in a se­ries of meet­ings to dis­cuss the prob­lems.

NBN Co has said in a mass blackout small, por­ta­ble, petrol gen­er­a­tors will be rolled out as fur­ther backup. But Rogers said there was con­cern the gen­er­a­tors would get stolen, the fuel in each gen­er­a­tor would not be enough to sur­vive a power short­age ex­tend­ing for sev­eral days, and that it would be dif­fi­cult to ac­cess the nodes dur­ing flood­ing or bush­fires.

“We have been talk­ing to the NBN about it and ways we can mit­i­gate these is­sues, but it ap­pears to be a built in flaw,” Rogers said. “Un­less you can in­crease the life of the bat­tery or find an­other way to get power to the node when the power is down, then this prob­lem will con­tinue to ex­ist. It’s a chal­lenge be­cause hav­ing to deal with it and test a backup sys­tem at a time of high stress when other sys­tems like wa­ter and in­fra­struc­ture are un­der pres­sure will not be ideal. The so­lu­tions pro­posed are yet to be tested.”

The switch to a pre­dom­i­nantly fi­bre to-the-node net­work is one of the most con­tro­ver­sial el­e­ments of the NBN. While the La­bor gov­ern­ment un­der Kevin Rudd promised a high-speed fi­bre to-the-premises scheme, Mal­colm Turn­bull said a fi­bre-to-the-node net­work would be more af­ford­able and quicker to in­stall. But there are in­creas­ing con­cerns that a fi­bre to-the-node net­work is in fact tak­ing longer and will end up cost­ing more.

Michael Quigley, for­mer chiefex­ec­u­tive of the NBN Co, told Guardian Aus­tralia that Rogers’s con­cerns about the net­work were “very valid”. He said cop­per was “nowhere near as re­silient” as fi­bre. The con­cerns be­ing raised by Queens­land should con­cern emer­gency re­sponse teams in ar­eas prone to dis­as­ters around the coun­try, he said.

“I’ve seen a fire hose be­ing used to hose the inside of a net­work split­ter of fi­bre and it was still able to carry traf­fic,” Quigley said.

“Try­ing to use old cop­per, as is the case with fi­bre-to-the-node, means you have to get power and elec­tron­ics through if it gets flooded, and cop­per is nowhere near as ro­bust and nowhere as re­li­able and nowhere near as ca­pa­ble as fi­bre.”

He said de­liv­er­ing power gen­er­a­tors and fuel to homes to power the nodes in a blackout “sounds like a pretty dodgy propo­si­tion”.

“It’s sounds like they’re mak­ing it up a bit as they go along,.”

The man­ager of dis­as­ter op­er­a­tions at Red­land city coun­cil, Michael Loll­back, said he be­lieved man­agers at NBN Co were tak­ing con­cerns about dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness se­ri­ously. He met with NBN Co rep­re­sen­ta­tives last week, who told him they were ex­plor­ing a num­ber of op­tions in­clud­ing re­duc­ing the num­ber of homes con­nected to any one node.

“That means there will be less peo­ple af­fected by in­di­vid­ual out­ages,” he said. “I felt some level of sat­is­fac­tion that this meant NBN Co were lis­ten­ing to us. We’ve been quite ro­bust in our po­si­tion that we want NBN Co to treat us as peo­ple and part­ners, not as clients. We are not try­ing to force this is­sue

to be prob­lem­atic, but be­cause we have years of ex­pe­ri­ence in dis­as­ter man­age­ment and try­ing to keep peo­ple safe.”

An NBN Cospokeswoman said any equip­ment con­nected over the NBN net­work would not work dur­ing a power blackout be­cause it re­quires power at both the ex­change and within the home or busi­ness to op­er­ate.

“While the NBN net­work has in­built power re­siliency in parts, it’s not within NBN’s con­trol to guar­an­tee power at both ends of the net­work at all times – in­clud­ing within the mil­lions of homes and busi­nesses across Aus­tralia,” she said.

“A key con­sid­er­a­tion is that your elec­tronic equip­ment such as modems, cord­less phones, TVs and Wi-Fi routers con­nected over the NBN net­work will also need sep­a­rate bat­tery backup to work in a power out­age. Even bat­tery backup on fi­bre-to-the-premises con­nec­tions will only last up to ap­prox­i­mately five hours.

“That is why we ad­vise peo­ple to con­sider keep­ing a charged mo­bile phone in case there is a power out­age of any sort ...

“No in­fra­struc­ture is fail­safe. The NBN is a ro­bust net­work but no net­work – be it elec­tric­ity, gas, or com­mu­ni­ca­tions – is 100% re­silient. Power, wa­ter and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions are al­most al­ways af­fected in a large scale event or power out­age.”

Pho­to­graph: Wil­liam West/AFP/Getty Im­ages

Dis­as­ter ex­perts fear power out­ages’ af­fect on NBN could lead to loss of lives.

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