NBN may leave lives at risk in bushfires and floods, experts warn

Lives may be lost in mass-emergencies including flood, bushfire and cyclone events because the NBN network will be left vulnerable during significant power outages, disaster management experts have warned NBN Co.

Emergency coordinators in disaster-prone regions such as the Sunshine Coast and Redland in Queensland fear the government’s decision to run fibre optics largely to-the-node instead of to-the-premises in a bid to save money and roll out the NBN faster will leave communities completely cut off in a power outage.

Unlike fibre-to-the-premises, where fibre is connected all the way to the home, fibre-to-the-node means hundreds of properties will remain connected via a traditional copper line from a nearby node.

Each node requires its own power supply, which could be lost if the electricity grid drops out during a disaster such as a flood.

Although the nodes have backup batteries, they will only last for between three and nine hours, depending on demand.

Townsville disaster management coordinator Alan Rogers said once people’s mobile phone batteries ran out, they would have no means of recharging their devices..

Tropical Cyclone Oswald, which caused severe storms and flooding in coastal regions of Queensland in 2013, left some areas without power for a week, he said.

“If the power goes down and the battery runs flat then people in their homes will not have an internet connection and if their phone, if its connected to the NBN, it will not operate,” said Rogers, who was one of a group of Queensland disaster coordinators who outlined their concerns to NBN Co last week in the latest in a series of meetings to discuss the problems.

NBN Co has said in a mass blackout small, portable, petrol generators will be rolled out as further backup. But Rogers said there was concern the generators would get stolen, the fuel in each generator would not be enough to survive a power shortage extending for several days, and that it would be difficult to access the nodes during flooding or bushfires.

“We have been talking to the NBN about it and ways we can mitigate these issues, but it appears to be a built in flaw,” Rogers said. “Unless you can increase the life of the battery or find another way to get power to the node when the power is down, then this problem will continue to exist. It’s a challenge because having to deal with it and test a backup system at a time of high stress when other systems like water and infrastructure are under pressure will not be ideal. The solutions proposed are yet to be tested.”

The switch to a predominantly fibre to-the-node network is one of the most controversial elements of the NBN. While the Labor government under Kevin Rudd promised a high-speed fibre to-the-premises scheme, Malcolm Turnbull said a fibre-to-the-node network would be more affordable and quicker to install. But there are increasing concerns that a fibre to-the-node network is in fact taking longer and will end up costing more.

Michael Quigley, former chief-executive of the NBN Co, told Guardian Australia that Rogers’s concerns about the network were “very valid”. He said copper was “nowhere near as resilient” as fibre. The concerns being raised by Queensland should concern emergency response teams in areas prone to disasters around the country, he said.

“I’ve seen a fire hose being used to hose the inside of a network splitter of fibre and it was still able to carry traffic,” Quigley said.

“Trying to use old copper, as is the case with fibre-to-the-node, means you have to get power and electronics through if it gets flooded, and copper is nowhere near as robust and nowhere as reliable and nowhere near as capable as fibre.”

He said delivering power generators and fuel to homes to power the nodes in a blackout “sounds like a pretty dodgy proposition”.

“It’s sounds like they’re making it up a bit as they go along,.”

The manager of disaster operations at Redland city council, Michael Lollback, said he believed managers at NBN Co were taking concerns about disaster preparedness seriously. He met with NBN Co representatives last week, who told him they were exploring a number of options including reducing the number of homes connected to any one node.

“That means there will be less people affected by individual outages,” he said. “I felt some level of satisfaction that this meant NBN Co were listening to us. We’ve been quite robust in our position that we want NBN Co to treat us as people and partners, not as clients. We are not trying to force this issue to be problematic, but because we have years of experience in disaster management and trying to keep people safe.”

An NBN Co spokeswoman said any equipment connected over the NBN network would not work during a power blackout because it requires power at both the exchange and within the home or business to operate.

“While the NBN network has inbuilt power resiliency in parts, it’s not within NBN’s control to guarantee power at both ends of the network at all times – including within the millions of homes and businesses across Australia,” she said.

“A key consideration is that your electronic equipment such as modems, cordless phones, TVs and Wi-Fi routers connected over the NBN network will also need separate battery backup to work in a power outage. Even battery backup on fibre-to-the-premises connections will only last up to approximately five hours.

“That is why we advise people to consider keeping a charged mobile phone in case there is a power outage of any sort …

“No infrastructure is failsafe. The NBN is a robust network but no network – be it electricity, gas, or communications – is 100% resilient. Power, water and telecommunications are almost always affected in a large scale event or power outage.”


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