Thursday, April 25, 2024

Disjointed scramble for comms post-Gabrielle

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Review of telecoms response calls for cell tech to be prioritised in future events.
A lack of co-ordination between authorities, telcos and electricity companies was highlighted as a key barrier to more rapid re-connection through the regions.
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Leaving essential communications equipment out of emergency supplies, or even unloading it before it arrived via aircraft visiting affected regions, undermined Cyclone Gabrielle response efforts in February.

A Telecommunications Forum report on the role the sector played in the Gabrielle response paints a picture of a disjointed and near dysfunctional approach to keeping the affected regions connected, as cell towers shut down and fibreoptic cables snapped.

The report touts a plan for more collaboration in future with government bodies during disaster events, and underscores what can be done by the government to improve on the $1.62 billion a year already invested by the sector into system resilience.

During Gabrielle much of Tairāwhiti and Hawke’s Bay were cut off from the rest of New Zealand. 

In Tairāwhiti the remote town of Ruatoria at one stage provided the only direct link for the entire east coast to Wellington’s civil defence headquarters. 

The Ruatoria community’s Starlink satellite pods were the only uplink available during the event and for several days afterwards.

In Hawke’s Bay many communities had contact with the outside world only via emergency services satellite phones for several days.

The sector has made it clear the $1.62bn invested annually is likely to have to  increased significantly in Gabrielle’s wake, with fibreoptic cable repairs, relocated network assets and more resilient technology options all demanding consideration and investment.

But the sector lays some blame at the feet of emergency authorities. 

It outlines how critical telecommunications equipment was unloaded from aircraft going to affected regions, and a navy frigate left earlier than advised, meaning mobile cell towers could not be sent to areas without connectivity. 

It also highlights that there were no formal processes to prioritise vital electricity supplies needed to reboot cell towers. Telco techs and their vehicles, including helicopters carrying them, were also denied access to some areas, not being considered essential.

A lack of co-ordination between authorities, telcos and electricity companies is highlighted as a key barrier to more  rapid re-connection through the regions. 

Only two cell towers were actually damaged by the weather events, with the remainder simply running out of battery supply before electricity was restored. 

The lack of rapid restoration cascaded from the problem of people not knowing if loved ones were safe, to issues around EFTPOS payments being impossible for communities wanting to purchase supplies.

The telcos have identified areas they can improve on themselves, including having better disaster preparedness that will involve working closer with electricity companies, identifying key cell tower sites to prioritise, and investing in more diverse fibre cable routes that steer away from the likes of vulnerable bridge crossings.  

Pushing mobile roaming in an emergency event beyond just 111 calls is also being considered.

But the sector is also looking to the government to stump up for support and investment in some areas.

These include recognising the sector’s critical nature, giving it priority along with the likes of electricity in an emergency.  

Removing the red tape barrier of resource consent would ensure access roads are recognised as shared corridors, enabling guaranteed access for staff to work with the likes of electricity staff. 

Allowing telcos to install fibre cable on Transpower pylons is noted as one approach to reducing the risk of losing cables across bridges, a key area of fibre damage during Gabrielle.

Companies would also like to see the government co-invest in power standby generation at remote high priority cell sites and offer support for distributed warehousing of generators suitable for multiple industries to use in the event of a disaster.

As Spark and One hail the launch of satellite-to-cell phone coverage in New Zealand later this year, satellites are being put forward as a partial solution, but the telcos note the limitations on data and the need for electricity to keep the system operating.

The report notes that what may provide resilience for one event such as a cyclone, may not offer the same resilience for another, like a volcanic eruption.

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