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When there are no emergency communications

I have been speaking with friends in various places who have bushfires in their area. Fortunately their homes have not burnt, but they have no direct communication, EXCEPT for those who are lucky enought to still have the old fashioned copper land lines.

Power was cut and many mobile phone towers have burnt so there is no mobile phone reception, the NBN is out too, as are radios and TV (unless they have a battery operated one which hardly anyone does nowdays). Consequently they have no phone or internet, and are totally in the dark so to speak about what is happening around them. They don’t know whether to evacuate of stay.

The NBN rollout means that eventually most of Australia will lose their land lines. What then? When the power goes out how will emergency information be transmitted? The current non-fibre variaties of the NBN are exaserbating the disaster by failing at the worst possible time.

Isn’t it time we started to reconsider emergency communications for when the next disaster hits?


I’ve seen a few friends on Facebook come up as “marked as safe” in relation to a particular incident …

My immediate reaction was ‘thank God for Facebook’ … (no it wasn’t, in case you were wondering …)

On how many levels this is scary I cannot calculate without a second abacus …


Radios in their vehicles?

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A project that might have some application in regards to failed major network communications:


Battery radio and fresh spares is part of the recommended emergency kits for cyclone and other high risk areas. It’s also part of our bush fire survival kit.

The old copper phone network had some redundancy and would stay up for a while on batteries. It still relied on the links to the outside world and power to be available.

The majority of the rural and regional areas including smaller towns are NBN Satellite or Fixed Wireless. These customers can keep their copper line. For emergencies, the lack of full fibre NBN or copper is most likely a concern for those living in larger urban areas and country townships that have FTTN.

This topic has been discussed previously.

Assuming full fibre or the old copper system is the solution. It still requires a highly protected network, backhaul connections and backup power that can keep it running for more than a few hours. You also need a UPS or power at your home if you have NBN FTTP.

Those who have been through major floods and cyclones in Northern Australia have been without the old copper systems for days or weeks. The further away from the major regional towns the longer the repair. There is no one universal fix. Fires and cyclones and major floods can take out local electricity for weeks. Telstra does set up temporary truck mounted mobile phone towers. Limited services subject to how many Telstra own.

For bushfires the standard advice is to get out before services are lost. The leave before it’s too late advice is for just that purpose. Unfortunately if you choose not to go there are no guarantees of anything. Also for those not directly affected it is an unreliable assumption that your near family and friends will be sitting at the other end of the phone or Internet. Hopefully they will be safe in an evacuation centre or safe refuge site. It is harrowing for everyone.

Communications for the emergency services are the primary need in the affected areas. As much as we might all hope for life to be normal the very nature of an emergency situation says otherwise.

All of us outside the major urban areas could have a better solution for the internet and phone. There are those of us in the regional centres where you can hear your neighbour snoring over the fence. Typically not alone nor in the greatest danger. Equally at risk of loosing comms and power for an extended period of time of the local HV distribution is burnt out.


With any natural disaster events (bushfires, cyclones earthquakes, tsunamis, eruptions etc) or others such as war etc, infrastructure such as electricity, gas, water, roads, railway, telecommunications etc are not designed to withstand such events.

As Australians we could decide that our infrastructure is to withstand anything which realistically could be thrown at it, but the cost increase to the consumer would be significant…as we would all pay for overengineered infrastructure which can survive rare disaster events.

It would be far better and cheaper to have response/return to service plans after an event…or even temporary or interim alternatives for emergency services, armed forcee etc until normal services are restored. I understand that these temporary serviced are used currently in extreme events when normal services are lost.

Individuals also have options such as sat phones or event emergency beacons if one is personally concerned about loss of communications.


Fibre is also a great answer to many natural disasters to keep communications up. If the cable is buried as the way of installation then it’s resilience to many effects is without compare. Distance without needing power input is also very good. This is why a FTTP network is just so much better than what we have. This aspect was glazed over in the MTM proposal and now the pigeons/problems come home to roost.


They were using their vehicles to listen sparingly, but as there is no power the service stations aren’t working; therefore fuel is precious (in case of evacuation).

[Also there is no point in recharging mobile phones in the car as the towers are out of action.]


Acknowledged and agree. Unfortunately, many of the areas devestated were not considered as ‘at risk’, so the majority of residents didn’t have emergency kits that you allude to prepared.

I understand that much has been discussed elsewhere on this forum, & I didn’t want to rake over old coals. I was trying to just state the facts, and highlight that with the changing technology, and changes in climate leading to more and more extreme weather events we need to review managing emergency warning communications for the civilian population.


A good starting point. I’d suggest it needs a little more to do the job right.

Fibre is useless if what’s at either end is not powered.
The hubs or central connection points (nodes or what ever they are called) need to be fire proof, flood proof and cyclone proof. The backup power supplies need to function for many days without intervention. Certainly easier with the lower power needs of fibre? And critically the nodes need to connect to the national network through a similar disaster proof system. Ideally through a redundant ring or mesh design.

Is the service genuinely essential for major disasters and emergencies?

Would every home owner be committing to a long life UPS in the home. To be justifiable would the system need to target 99% of all premises in the Fixed Wireless footprint and every Telstra phone serviced property in the Satellite footprint? A consequence. No opt out option for the basic service, given the discussion it is essential for emergencies and disasters.

More generally.
For all disaster and emergency communications is there any justification for not making the NBN 100% fibre in the cities. No opt out option, everyone must connect and pay for a basic service level. Major disaster events can take out communications and power just as readily in whole urban areas and affect many more homes and lives than those sparsely spread out of town. It is worth noting that the current NBN advice to always have a charged mobile handy. This is putting 100% reliance on our mobile providers. The ones that have no CSG obligation?

Should there be a discussion that every home must have fibre and every home must connect and pay for a basic NBN service. It would seem to be the best for any type of major emergency anywhere around the nation.


Yes, which for many is a less reliable service.

But not for the 10-11% who fall in Fixed Wireless or Satellite NBN service areas. They get to keep their land lines.

Who is most at risk?
Whose needs should we address first?

I’d hope it is the 10-11%, that will be first to get a better more reliable service. They are in the most vulnerable and more isolated locations.


Very good point and possibly would only work if the exchange had backup power end and the residence say was off the grid/had a UPS.

As turning off power in bushfire events is one strategy to reduce risks (could be either transmission or distribution forced outages), it is highly unlikely that a residence in a bush fire prone area would be able to rely on uninterrupted mains power supply during extreme fire events.

It is worth noting that mobile towers are often serviced by fibre, and the media reports indicated that outages on these towers occurred during the fire events. It could be from loss of power (inc. draining/exhaustion of back up supplies) or from catastrophic loss of the tower structure/communications equipment due to extreme heat. It is also possible that the fibre could melt is the fire temperature exceeded the fibre melting point in exposed locations. Fibre could also break/denature under rapid heating and cooking cycles.

While fibre may be reasonably resilient especially if fully undergrounded, it is likely that all the other infrastructure needed to maintain a live fibre connection will be the weakest link.

The only reliable communication pathway may be those which don’t rely on existing nearby infrastructure, such as satellite phones or temporary emergency communication systems set up during or immediately following an event.


… there was a time when WICEN would be a worthy resource in such circumstances, however I’m not sure where things are at now. A quick tour of the various WICEN websites doesn’t fill me with confidence …


I am in that situation. I did not keep my landline as the bundled deals of internet plus VOIP plus all calls are only a few dollars more than just internet. To keep the landline, where I had to pay for calls, would have cost me a substantial sum. I haven’t looked at the prices in a few years but it would be of the order of $60-70 per month.

The other problem is that the landlines round here are not too reliable either. The wires are very old and not well maintained and have to cross creeks etc. With the landline there was a good chance of no service with heavy rain or for no apparent reason. Most wires are underground but creek crossings are done via wooden poles that would be doubtful in a bushfire.

Service used to be abysmal. Long pointless calls to service departments who were very polite but knew nothing and could do nothing, absurd wasted jaunts as technicians wandered about the district achieving nothing, extended chains of communication from my contact through departments, contractors and subcontractors. Truly pythonesque black comedy in real time.
“We are terribly sorry to inform you that your service docket and all its notes was lost in a black hole during a transition from hyperspace, please re-apply if your problem has not been resolved”.
It’s hilarious, except if it’s your phone that doesn’t work.


Audience: Muted “YAY”!

At least that is one small benefit from having fixes wireless or satellite.

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It is good to hear an alternate take on the copper phone network.

Was the NBN ever intended to provide reliable communications during major disasters and emergency events? Perhaps we should be asking more of the mobile phone network and improved resilience as a more cost effective solution?

Where should the priority be.
Upgrading the NBN to full fibre for 95-98% of Australians? Past guesses $20B+,
Spending an extra $20B on climate mitigation and zero carbon?

Yes, there is the alternate answer, both of the above!

Cynically neither would seem likely.
Perhaps the reality of major unprecedented events in the current bushfire emergency being closer to Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne will have some impact. Previous equally damaging events in the far north of Australia due to flooding and cyclones seem to be too easily dismissed. Emergency funding, politicians photo opportunities, and a ‘the north is well known for being in a high risk cyclone area’. Nothing more to say. Next!


Your situation and experience with a land line are very similar to mine, which is why I got rid of it years ago, saving heaps in the process, for what was a very poor service.

I used to phone Telecom/Telstra every day and complain in the mid 1990s when I was trying to use dial-up internet, initially at 300baud with drop-outs every few minutes.( I could type faster than text in emails appeared!). Phone calls were over a background of scratchy noise, with plenty of drop-outs. The cables were up to 35 years old, and many joints along the 12km to the exchange had serious corrosion.

Eventually they took me on as a test case, to see what they might be up for across the country. They did eventually get it up to 14.4kbps, with occasional drop-outs, and sometimes it would connect at a higher speed, although it always dropped back to a slower speed in use.

It certainly wasn’t a service to rely on in an emergency.


Please note, I wasn’t suggesting the NBN was to be used as THE emergency communications carriage service. I was merely pointing out that with copper telephone lines being actively disconnected for the majority of Australians, I would suggest now is the time our Federal Government needs to come up with a plan for a fall-back communication system for Australia in the very likely case of future emergencies.

If they come up with a plan, hopefully it will not be for the cheapest, technologically retarded, hotch-potch system like the NBN, but some robust system that will work efficiently and effectively.

(Could someone please stop those damned pigs flying past??)


Well in a way, Yes it was. Not only was speed considered but so was the longevity and resilience of Fibre used in the consideration of the Rudd plan. Fibre Optic (FO) cable as I have previously said is way more resilient than other methods of connection, copper is nowhere near that level of robustness.

FO immersion in water eg flood waters doesn’t render it inoperative (splices/joins are also not affected by water), fire can damage the strands but as noted previously in the thread they are very resistant if the cable is buried and even if exposed they can withstand some level of extreme heat for a short period. There are also FO cables that are made to be Fire Resistant to a much greater extent than general purpose cable. FO cables have great tensile and stretch strength so tolerate stretching and pushing/pulling far more than copper cabling. They aren’t conductive so electrical interference or lightning damage is not a great concern.

A single strand to a premises can carry it’s signal for over 100 km without need of repeaters/boosting. As Australia uses the GPON type which is mostly an non-powered circuit (around a 60% power saving compared to copper networks) where the signal is only boosted on it journey if a segment is greater than around 100 km and only needs power at the beginning and the end of it’s journey to transmit and receive if the run is less than 100 km or so means less power sources are needed. Yes it means at the end dwelling/business a power supply is needed but this can be achieved by UPS supplies, inverters, or even the nbn™ battery power supply to give connection this means even if a supply is time limited there are other means to get the needed power. Small inverters that can be connected to a car can supply the system for days if needed, longer you can buy a cheap generator to keep it running.

Exchanges as they used to be called can be built to be very fire resistant and they do have power generation in case of emergencies (these are what supplied power to the older copper circuits).

The mobile network towers like the FW towers are the weak point in that circuit as most from tower to exchange rely on Fibre to complete their journey. Some towers rely on Microwave connections to get to a tower with Fibre and again it is the towers that are the weak link. Most of a Tower’s infrastructure is above ground, relies on a huge amount of power and are thus susceptible to floods, lightning, wind and fire structural damage. Relying on the Mobile Network is a far worse prospect from a reliability point of view in extreme weather or emergencies.

We got dudded with MTM, I mean really dudded.


Thanks for kicking the discussion off. Nothing lost by having a second look at it.

Any time is the right time history considered.

The right time was more recently when the NBN first said we should not rely on the NBN phone service and always keep a ready charged mobile handy.

The right time was also more than a decade prior in respect of the NBN, as @grahroll is pointing out in response to one of my questions.

The right time was when Cyclone Marcia, or Yasi, or Larry, or … or Tracy or … hit destroying hundreds or thousands of homes, taking lives and destroying all power, communications and blocking emergency access.

Australia has a long history of national disasters, politicians overflying in helicopters, and local communities picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Communities have been cut off without food, water, power or phones. The magnitude of the current fire emergencies may be unexpected for many. The outcomes with losses of life, property and livelihoods are far from first time events in the recent history of Australia.

The right solution, if Canberra can finally come to deliver change needs to treat all of regions and rural areas of Australia equally, something the NBN does not.

If I had a choice a I’d rather have an expanded better mobile service than the the NBN as the primary emergency service for communications. The NBN or copper phone line is of little value if your home is 3m underwater and you are on the roof, or your house is on fire or has been flattened in a cyclone? A mobile is also your only chance if you are not in the home. Both for calling in as well as receiving emergency updates.

@grahroll has some alternate comments on some of the issues concerning this option. What seems best may depend on what scenario is being considered. After decades of living up north, I expect in an emergency event to have nothing to fall back on. Total isolation worse case. Perhaps a symptom of previous Government indifference.

If however all rural and regional consumers get full fat fibre to the premises as an emergency service solution, I’ll not complain. Providing it comes at no extra cost compared to the same service in postcode 2000!