NBN batteries pose disaster issue: experts

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, Telcos, Telstra, NBN

Luke Hopewell

About Luke Hopewell

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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  • I posted on delimiter weeks ago saying that in a flood situation once the batteries died people would have no phone service. The replies were along the lines of it wouldn't be an issue and I'm just against the NBN.

    I guess this is one of those situations where we need a disaster to highlight the potential problem with something even though said problem is glaring us in the face.

  • Yes better to find out in advance than later. However wireless towers are also suffering from the same problem -


    And the CUA, AAPT, Centrelink etc are all experiencing problems, so really...!

    However, more significantly, sadly people's houses have washed away and people have tragically lost their lives, so perhaps this is not the best time for the old toldyaso, Tezz...!
  • umm .. this wasn't one of those "I told you some moments", it was commenting on and directly relating to the article above.

    Actually the areas that are affected are on the old copper network so we're seeing how the networks as they are now have stood up, which all in all has been pretty good. Yes a lot of the mobile communications are relying on battery backup, but for the moment they're still holding on and with any luck they will until techs can get there to replace the batteries.

    The question for the NBN moving forward is what would have happened if the area was fibre delivered and would publicly accessible telecommunications infrastructure been knocked out earlier?

    Regarding the tragic impact, I'm originally from Brisbane and my wife from Withcott, I know the region affected quite well and have friends and family stretching from Toowoomba all the way to Brisbane. Thankfully all of them are ok and their houses are intact, friends of friends, well some of them were in Grantham and their houses were the ones you saw on the news. Regardless, please don't play the "you have no sympathy card", I'm fully aware of the impact and was merely discussing the article.
  • Please don't get upset, I was basically agreeing with you and just saying that something of this magnitude is bound to cause widespread problems, as outlined.

    The tragedy does take precedence over all other aspects, but you are right, you were basically commenting on the topic, so apologies...!
  • No offense taken, just pointing out that I wasn't excluding the impact to the people, merely discussing the topic at hand.

    Anyway, back to it ..
  • This is an important question. NBNCo is well aware of it and has tapped into hundreds of solutions for ensuring the ability to call out during an extended power failure. A mix of solutions will be provided. Articles like this one keep the matter in the public view, and this is a good thing. Don't forget that most people with a copper phone line now use a cordless phone. After a day without power, the handset will not have enough charge to work either, even if the copper line is still energised from the exchange.

    If I can be flippant for a moment. We should all go back to keeping horses. That way, if we run out of petrol for our car, we can still get around. Of course we will only be able to travel at 30 km/h, but our means of transport will always be available.

    Folks, copper has done as much as it can. It is time to deliver broadband universally (just ask Malcolm Turnbull), and laying fibre to large towns, then supplying wireless where fibre can't be economically laid just yet, is the best way to do it. And the cheapest, believe it or not. The emergency phone problem will be solved in many ways, so let's keep talking about it, without accusing NBNCo of ignoring the problem.
  • I seems Labor's NBN plan is going to be a flop. A flood won't be necessary to take it out.
  • I would hardly call the copper network bulletproof. The slightest inclination of bad weather, let alone a flood, and my phone line goes belly up.

    But I do think the battery backup system needs to be better thought out. 5 hours isn't enough time. If your power is out for more then 5 hours that's when you'll start needing your phone more and more. I would suggest at the very least the battery units last for 24 hours, and provide much longer lasting batteries for areas prone to natural disasters (bush fire area's, flood prone areas, isolated communities, ect).
  • Well that's basically it, the minimum life of the battery should be 24hrs, so any situation where power needs to be shut off in most circumstances it would come back in time.

    But if you're going to provide extra batteries for disaster prone areas how do you pick them? I mean I know (as I posted on delimiter) I'm on a floodplain, I'm expecting to get a flood here at some stage or another. But I don't think anyone expected the magnitude of what's going on in SE QLD, and really there the ones that would need them more.

    What really needs to be covered is the mobile networks of all the carriers, ensuring they have enough power after it's cut will keep comms up to a lot more people then just home phones.
  • I think the basic flaw in the article was the assumption that the Telstra copper network was bulletproof. It is not. Have you ever looking into an access pit in the street when some Telstra guys are working down there. There are plastic drink bottles covered with insulating tape keeping joins dry. When there is excessive rain, my mother's phone line become barely usable for voice let alone the internet. Telstra's response is to wait for things to dry out. Flood proof it is not. Making such a ridiculous implication does nothing for Dermot's credentials.
  • 'Tens of thousands of people are without services,'' a Telstra spokeswoman told the Herald.
    'Some' fixed telephones still work on the copper network even if electricity is cut, as long as there is back-up power in the exchange.

    Meh. Consulter drumming up some free publicity.
  • "The Telstra copper network was built to be bulletproof,"


    It's about as bullet proof as your average tissue. I logged line faults for 3 years.
    There are roughly 3 million copper line faults each year.
    I guarantee you that hardly any of the homes in QLD that have suffered from flood damage will simply dry out and start working.
    Zdnet would do well to run a followup story in a couple of months when there is a backlog of weeks to restore any non-working line in the country.
    Yes, Perth will be affected by the floods in QLD.

    In the mean time, I would recommend anyone anywhere who is currently suffering a phone line fault to read this:
  • Actually any one of the many cordless phones I've owned to date is useless immediately power to the base is lost regardless of an active copper or fibre connection or battery life of the handset.
  • Note that we have a "Priority assistance" program with all telephone service providers in Australia, through the ACMA - see http://www.acma.gov.au/WEB/STANDARD/pc=PC_1724. Just as now, service providers will be able to provide longer battery life or other solution to keep a phone service running once customers have identified that they may need it.
  • I wonder how it is expected for diesel generators to be restocked whilst underwater.
  • Ummm the Copper phone services has exactly the same problem people - each exchange has battery backup and or a diesel generator there is no difference as is happening already in queensland exchanges are going down because there battery backups are going flat and telstra cannot get into the exchanges to replace the batteries because of the water... It is definetly not bulletproof, infact I have been in rural exchanges in the past where people have shot holes through the exchange...
  • “Seems Labor’s NBN plan is going to be a flop”?


    * The opposition, with a vested interest to destructively oppose, stifle and spin FUD, 24/7.

    * A few selfish nay-sayers who already have decent comms themselves and therefore don’t give a **** about anyone else who hasn’t… and/or their employment, financial, political reasons to also oppose/spin FUD.

    * A few greedy TLS shareholders, still living in Sol’s 2005/NWAT shareytale, who believe because THEY bought TLS shares, **** everyone else, Australia’s comms is only there to make them money.

    What a compelling argument from such reliable sources [sic]…
  • Im not sure people realize, but the VOICE service on Telstra's copper is basically bulletproof, and it is very resistant to natural disasters

    This sought of think was bound to happen, and furthermore the amount of batteries going to be required to power the ONT's on a national level is going to be ridiculous, which forced NBNco to only supply the initial battery, which means people are not unlikely to install further replacement batteries into the ONT

    Instead of rushing out with the NBN full speed no matter what, this should have been thought over very carefully. An existing copper line for example could have been used to power the ONT (you know, you can send power down copper, thats why phones still work regardless of main power) in case of a power outage, and there wouldn't have been any need for batteries at all

    Or NBNCo could have waited a few years, since Power over Fiber is being ratified, (which would allow you to send power then a fiber cable through photovotalics, allowing the ONT to be be powered when the mains go down). Issue is that Power over Fiber requires a special type of fiber cable, so its too late for that now

    This is going to be a massive thorn for NBN (and Labor), and unless anything is done about the consequences would be dire.
  • This isn't JUST about Queensland floods, its about disasters (in general). The copper phone line was a form of redundancy and a separate power source, so if the mains go out for WHATEVER reason (not just floods), such as the cable being cut, or something happening at the power plant, or a small disaster in an area (such as a fire) etc etc, you had a means to contact emergency services.

    And you cannot just rely on mobiles, because they have batteries as well, and if they lose power you can't even charge them because the main power went down!
  • Um... just one small point, our systems fail completely to handle the calls made during an emergency, Vic fires, QLD floods ect... They run with very little spare capacity for day-2-day stuff... If we don't upgrade our telecommunications the black-outs on phone services will start to appear in regular day-2-day operation, this is without any battery/power concerns. So, if your going to upgrade why would you not upgrade your large scale carrier network to something that is nearly endless in its scalability over using 100year old plus technologies? (though the "power over fiber" shows that a great idea is again being ruined by pollies chasing headlines and votes, rather than an open discussion on an infrastructure decission that will affect all Australians for many generations to come)