Outspoken Katter's Australia Party leader Bob Katter has asked Prime Minister Julia Gillard to hold an inquiry to investigate the resilience of Australia's telecommunications networks and the National Broadband Network (NBN), just over a year since parliament last held an inquiry into emergency telecommunications services.
Following severe weather and flooding in Queensland last month, mobile services with Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone were brought down--although Optus' outages were limited to south east Queensland.
The NBN service for just under 200 customers in new housing developments in Mackay, Townsville, and Cairns went down during the floods, too, but NBN Co said that this was due to issues with a third-party backhaul provider.
In the first Question Time of 2013 in the House of Representatives today, Katter said that constituents in his electorate of Kennedy in Queensland went without internet and phone services for a number of days. He suggested that the deaths of two men who were swept off the road may have been prevented if the mobile services had been operating. Katter asked the prime minister to conduct a "comprehensive inquiry into telco services" including the NBN, to ensure that "lives are not lost in the future."
Gillard said it was "very concerning" that such a large portion of Queensland lost access to phone services, but stopped short of agreeing to launch the inquiry.
"We don't want to see that kind of loss of telecommunications again. Now I think we've got to be practical about what we can do, and what we can't do," she said.
"The reality is there will always be some circumstances of nature that will be so ferocious that even with the best of preparations, things that people identify as necessary services ... will be lost."
Gillard said that she has asked for further information on what caused the outages in Queensland and what can be learned from it. She said that collaboration with various levels of government, emergency services, and the private sector is the best course of action, and noted that this previously led to the national emergency alert system.
She added that resiliency was built into the NBN's design.
"In the design of the NBN, NBN Co is placing the highest priority on reliability and strength of the network in the design and planning stages, and they have taken into account natural disaster occurrences like flooding in the basic network design."
The 2011 Senate inquiry into the capacity of communications networks and emergency warning systems to deal with emergencies and natural disasters chaired by then-Senator Mary Jo Fisher made no specific recommendations in November 2011 around ensuring mobile communications networks remain up during severe weather events. The report did recommend that priority for fuel be given to public broadcasters such as the ABC to broadcast emergency warnings.
The government said that access to fuels during emergencies is a decision for state and territory governments, and the federal Liquid Fuel Emergency Act, which gives power to the federal government to prioritise fuel, only comes into effect when there is a severe national fuel shortage.