ACMA to review bushfire impact on Australian telco networks

Proposal floated to provide telcos access to emergency fuel stores for the purpose of providing generators with backup power during emergencies.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is set to conduct an industry-wide review into the impact of Australia's summer of bushfires on the nation's telco networks, and how the industry handled the situation.

The review was announced by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher on Wednesday following a meeting with the CEOs of Telstra, Vodafone, NBN, and the COO of TPG. Also in attendance were representatives from ACMA, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), Communications Alliance, the NSW Telco Authority, and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.

It was also announced that AMTA will work towards getting information on where "critical mobile infrastructure" is situated into the hands of emergency coordination agencies, and the Comms Alliance will set out to create a "national common operating model for telecommunications disaster management" that will allow telco and state agencies to work better together.

At the meeting, a proposal was floated that, if accepted, would allow telcos to access emergency fuel stores for the purpose of providing generators with backup power during emergencies., as well as getting telcos information on power availability to know where best to deploy generators, and to clear a higher amount of bush from around mobile towers and transmission facilities.

"The roundtable agreed that access to power was critical," a statement from Fletcher said.

"Most network outages following the bushfires have been due to loss of power, not due to direct bushfire damage to network facilities."

See also: Twitter bots and trolls promote conspiracy theories about Australian bushfires

For its part, industry will work with the federal government to "increase network resilience" by co-ordinating advice to affected residents, provide greater network redundancy in impacted areas for services such as banking and Eftpos, look at ways to make better use of Wi-Fi and satellite connectivity when networks are down as well as whether temporary connectivity, such as cells on wheels (COWs), are needed to replace damaged infrastructure.

"While no telecommunications network is 100% impervious to damage from natural disasters, Australians naturally want to be confident our communications networks are as resilient as possible during times of emergency," Fletcher said.

"We are better placed than twenty or thirty years ago; the combination of mobile, fixed line and satellite connectivity combined with mobile COWs and temporary satellites on the NBN that can be deployed -- means we now have greater back-ups and options to keep our vital communications networks up and running."

Since September, Australia has been in the thrall of a bushfire crisis that earlier this month was said to have led to the deaths of over 1 billion animals.

In recent weeks, the nation's telcos have announced various packages to support victims and volunteers fighting the fires. Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone have all said they will waive the mobile bills of Australian firefighting volunteers across December and January.

Telstra and Optus have also been deploying COWs, as well as satellite small cells in the case of Optus, while NBN has used its Road Muster trucks and installed satellite dishes at evacuation and relief centres to provide free Wi-Fi. 

Those impacted by the fires have had free use of Telstra payphones and Air hotspots, as well as free call diversion to another number. 

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