NBN batteries pose disaster issue: experts

Summary:With some mobile telecommunication services in Queensland currently under siege and mains power shut off to thousands, an expert has warned that basic fixed phone services could have been cut off if the National Broadband Network Company (NBN Co) had deployed the network with its current battery backup technology.

With some mobile telecommunication services in Queensland currently under siege and mains power shut off to thousands, an expert has warned that basic fixed phone services could have been cut off if the National Broadband Network Company (NBN Co) had deployed the network with its current battery backup technology.

"The Telstra copper network was built to be bulletproof," said Dermot Cox, marketing director with C-COR Broadband.

"[In the case of the NBN], if the power goes out and you have battery backup for your fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) service, [basic wired telephony devices] will continue to operate while there is battery charged," he said.

Once the Network Termination Unit (NTU) battery runs out of charge, however, users would be left without access to basic telecommunications services, a potential safety concern for those in the community who require round-the-clock service in the case of emergency.

In its business plan released late last year, NBN Co detailed plans for batteries to be installed in all NTUs which could supplement power to the passive fibre connection for up to five hours after a power outage. This means that people are able to use their basic telephone services as they would on the copper network while the battery has power, but if it dies, services cease.

Telstra's copper line network draws power from telephone exchange-based battery units, which, if connected to diesel generators, have the capability to run independent of mains power indefinitely.

"Assuming that diesel generators at telephone exchanges were able to be supplied with fuel, they could run indefinitely without mains power, whereas an NTU has a finite amount of capacity," said Paul Brooks, owner of Layer10 Consulting.

"In an extended power failure, when the battery goes dead then the NTU won't be able to be used as a phone until another battery is put in there," Brooks added.

Brooks said that the NBN business plan intended that people in need of round-the-clock contact for medical emergency equipment, for example Lifeline and VitaCall, would be able to notify their service provider, which could give them a battery with longer life.

Cox said that people who were unaware of the technical specifications of the NBN are likely to assume their phone would work in a mains power outage once a battery had run down.

"My parents … in their time, they would have expected that if you pick up the phone with no power it would continue to operate. They expect that. I think punters [still expect that]," Cox said.

"Punters have no idea what they're getting [with the NBN] other than fast internet with someone else to pay for it!" he added, saying that the NBN Co had an opportunity to better educate communities about what would happen post-roll-out.

"I think this is an opportunity for NBN Co as it develops its organisation to build a dialogue and information awareness [around battery backup services]," he said.

ZDNet Australia contacted NBN Co regarding disaster-proofing phone services, but it had not responded at the time of writing.

Some mobile phone base towers in Queensland are currently running on backup batteries. If telcos are unable to access the towers before the batteries run down, the towers will stop providing coverage to their local area.

(Front page image licensed by Digital Tasmania)

Topics: Government, Broadband, Government : AU, Hardware, NBN, Telcos, Telstra

About

A fresh recruit onto the tech journalism battlefield, Luke Hopewell is eager to see some action. After a tour of duty in the belly of the Telstra beast, he is keen to report big stories on the enterprise beat. Drawing on past experience in radio, print and magazine, he plans to ask all the tough questions you want answered.

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