Voices in the dark: why we must invest

Disasters bring to sharp focus the idea that reliable communications is essential. And those questioning the need to continually invest in communications networks need only look to Christchurch, where mobiles have literally become lifelines and telecoms operators are racing against time, and steadily-draining mobile batteries, to find and reach survivors.

It's ironic that when the Christchurch earthquake struck, emergency-management executives were gathered in Melbourne for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials' annual conference — whose focus is on improving communications during disasters. Meanwhile, 2400km away, Ann Voss — trapped in rubble under a desk in the earthquake-ravaged Pyne Gould Corporation Building and able to communicate with family and news outlets until her rescue — was living what has become an all-too-frequent nightmare as yet another natural disaster hit the region.

Despite being buried under mountains of rubble, she was able to do what many Christchurch residents have been doing instinctively: grab her mobile and ring her loved ones for the reassurance and strength that helped her through her 36-hour ordeal. That this was possible is a reflection of both the extent to which we rely on communications, and the way we take it for granted as a way of reaching out — whether personally or through the photographs and endless tweets sharing news, condolences and acts of heroism or everyday kindness.


In times of crisis, people need people — and a way to reach out to them
(Brisbane hands image by Gerardus, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Even as the tragedy in Christchurch unfolds around us and we collectively pray that the remaining survivors can be found and rescued, there will be many lessons learned and plans made for the future. One of these plans, in a curious act of serendipity, comes from Vodafone, which has copped months of abuse and potential lawsuits from people who rely on mobile networks to be available when and where they're needed.

Rescue crews have traditionally relied on sniffer dogs and careful searches to find survivors in rubble, but the calls from Christchurch's wreckage confirmed that the humble mobile has joined them as a lifeline for support and a tool for rescue, just as it has proven to be an essential tool for those displaced by natural disasters. And while we may have learned to live with occasional service dropouts in everyday life, during times of crisis it's critical that someone in dire straits can reach for their mobile and get a signal rather than interrupted calls, dropouts or a network that's just not available because there are too many people trying to use it. Telecom NZ knows this: witness its move to prioritise the repair of CBD mobile services so those trapped in rubble can reach rescuers.

Ironically, one of the threads at APCO related to whether mass-market mobile networks are reliable and available enough to guarantee service to emergency workers in a time of crisis. Judging by reports, they are not — even though Telstra has been spruiking its Next G network's battle-hardness to emergency authorities for some time.

By scrapping a decade of 3G investment, Vodafone has acknowledged both the expectations of its customers, and its failure to deliver the kind of wireless networks it needs to. It's an extraordinary step, precipitated by widespread complaints — and pre-empted by Telstra years ago, when it bit the bullet and shelled out over $1 billion to ditch its previous network investments and build a Next G network that remains the industry benchmark of scalability and flexibility.

Telstra knew back then that increasing data pressures would require a fresh approach, but Vodafone realised that fact far too late. Now, five years later, it's racing to upgrade thousands of base stations in a desperate bid to avoid losing even more of the customers that have been abandoning it in droves. Proactivity would have been a good idea some time ago, but the carrier's hand has been forced by the reality that it cannot look to the future without major change.

Will Optus have much choice but to follow its two rivals? Constant reports of idiosyncrasies with its network and coverage issues, compounded by local outages like the ones that recently interrupted service in Adelaide and Melbourne, and plagued attendees at a Mardi Gras kick-off event in Sydney, highlight the weak points in our current networks — and suggest that Optus could probably do with some network rebuilding too (although it contends its efforts are on track).

Best-effort solutions will always be just that — an effort. But they are not, far too often, good enough: truly reliable communications infrastructure, like that which we need and deserve, requires something altogether more.

The fundamental principle here is quite clear: sometimes, your existing solutions just run out of steam and simply have no option but to start over. This goes for our fixed networks, too. For too long, telecommunications policy in this country has been predicated on squeezing more and more out of our copper loop. However, just because it exists doesn't make it the ideal solution to take us into the future. Best-effort solutions will always be just that — an effort. But they are not, far too often, good enough: truly reliable communications infrastructure, like that which we need and deserve, requires something altogether more.

This future we're creating relies ever more on connectedness. Everyday telco users are right to expect that connectedness be available whenever they pick up the phone to dial a loved one, or sit down in their homes to access essential services. Those that think our need for communications can be satiated by existing technologies only need think of Ann Voss, and stuck under her desk and clinging to her phone as her only lifeline to the outside world — or Vicki Anderson, who struggled to complete a mobile call as she desperately (and, thankfully, successfully) tried for over six hours to complete a mobile call to locate her partner and children.

Even in less-desperate times, we have an urgent and continual need for communication. Many observers have focused on the fact that Vodafone's network will boost potential speeds to 42Mbps, but this is as irrelevant as whether NBN customers are getting 100Mbps or 25Mbps services. What people need, and what they aren't getting now, is reliability and predictability — that knowledge that when they pick up the phone or try to access essential information services, they're going to be there. It got Ann Voss through her darkest hour — and that's a guarantee worth investing in.

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