Back in January when Australia was on fire and the rest of the world wasn’t, locals in the burning zones were advised that the best source of information was emergency services apps. But they were unavailable because mobile networks had gone down.
And now we know why: a new report titled “Impacts of the 2019-20 bushfires on the telecommunications network” reveals that power outages were the main source of network problems.
The report considered the impact of the fires on retail and wholesale networks, both wireless and wired and found that just one percent of outages were caused by fire damage to networks.
Power outages accounted for 779 out of 888 recorded outages and plenty of those power outages were caused by electricity infrastructure burning down. Some were caused by factors such as on-site backup generators running out of fuel, but the report doesn't enumerate such incidents and lumps them into an "other" category of outage explanations.
While carriers of course rushed to restore service, two-thirds of attempts to fix equipment encountered “site access restrictions, such as fallen trees.” Those hazards could only be found after fire authorities allowed telco technicians to access infrastructure. Waiting for that access contributed to delays in restoring some services, but carriers hustled to get temporary fixes in place in a third of cases. But sometimes fuel to fill a generator was not available – pumps weren’t working because they too relied on electricity.
"Information provided by the carriers indicated that backup power capability was generally available for all facilities that experienced an outage," the report says. It therefore offered the following conclusion:
“Most of the outage incidents were caused by power outages rather than direct fire damage. Direct fire damage only accounted for one per cent of outage incidents. This indicates that reliance on mains power does affect network resiliency.”
The document also observes that both copper and optical fibre networks flamed out during the fires, but that no evidence regarding their relative resilience is obvious.
Another observation offered started: “While underground infrastructure is generally more resilient to bushfires, it is not immune to damage.” ®