Mobile telcos must provide 24-hour power backup in bushfire areas: Xenophon Team

Mobile carriers could be forced to ensure their base stations have 24 hours of backup standby power in high-risk bushfire areas under legislation proposed by the Nick Xenophon Team.

Mobile telecommunications carriers could be forced to ensure they have 24 hours of backup power stored in all base stations located in bushfire-prone areas under a private Bill introduced to Australian Parliament.

The Telecommunications Amendment (Guaranteeing Mobile Phone Service in Bushfire Zones) Bill 2017 [PDF] was introduced in the House of Representatives by Nick Xenophon Team MP Rebekha Sharkie on Monday morning.

According to Sharkie, mobile telcos must have the capacity to continue providing telecommunications services in the event of a natural disaster because the fibre-to-the-node (FttN) National Broadband Network (NBN) connections would cut out during any power outages.

"High-risk bushfire areas need 24hr standby power on mobile towers. No power = no NBN FTTN, after 4 hrs no mobile communications," Sharkie tweeted in explanation.

The proposed Section 113(3)(zb) would see the insertion of the point: "Action to be taken to ensure that mobile base stations in high bushfire risk communities have at least 24 hours of standby power capability at all times."

The Bill would provide the federal government agency Emergency Management Australia, which sits under the Attorney-General's Department, with powers to use state and territory government planning laws to determine where high-risk bushfire areas are.

"The Bill seeks to require carriers to provide 24-hour standby power capability for mobile phone towers that they operate in high-risk bushfire communities," the Bill's explanatory memorandum [PDF] says.

A new s125C would then vest the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) with the responsibility for "determining the detail of the regulations that enforce these provisions".

"As soon as practicable after the commencement of this section, the ACMA must, by legislative instrument, determine a standard that: Applies to participants in the section of the telecommunications industry that consists of carriers; and deals with requiring those participants that own or operate a critical mobile base station to ensure that the critical mobile base station has at least 24 hours of standby power capability at all times," the proposed legislation explains.

"ACMA must undertake consultation with relevant and representative telecommunications associations or bodies before determining such standards," the explanatory memorandum adds.

Emergency services across the country are required to use commercial mobile networks including those provided under the mobile blackspot program, rather than having their own dedicated networks and spectrum, under a decision by the federal government at the end of last year.

"Commercial mobile networks are the most efficient, effective, and economical way of delivering a public safety mobile broadband capability," Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Justice Minister Michael Keenan said in November.

Fifield and Keenan added that using commercial mobile broadband would provide "significant potential" for emergency services to improve their efficiency and safety.

Building a dedicated network for public safety agencies (PSAs) had been estimated to cost around AU$6.2 billion.

PSAs -- which include police agencies, fire service organisations, ambulance services, the State Emergency Service (SES), and the marine rescue and coast guard -- have been pushing for their own network for years, saying they need to be able to access high-speed video, high-quality images, geolocation tools, and biometric capabilities wherever they are working.

The Victorian government spoke out against the decision in March last year, pointing out that emergencies could occur in regional areas with sparse commercial mobile coverage, which would inhibit the ability of PSAs to communicate in the field.

"We [state governments] need to operate on at least 95 percent of our landmass, and that covers about 99 percent of the population coverage. And we're going from highly urbanised areas to peri-urban, to regional, to rural, to remote areas," the state argued.

"That's about 15 percent more landmass than what all of our commercial networks cover. How do we fill that gap? We [could] have a bushfire in the middle of nowhere."