Senate inquiry to question emergency communications

Senator Mary Jo Fisher calls for inquiry into stability of telecommunications in natural disasters

Liberal senator Mary Jo Fisher has called for a Senate inquiry into the reliability of telecommunications and emergency systems during natural disasters, in light of recent outages during the Queensland floods and earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We are becoming increasingly reliant on communicating during disasters and we should seize this opportunity to make our emergency networks and alert systems the best they can be,” Fisher said in a statement.

“We need to have confidence in the effectiveness of our communication networks, which include radio, telephone, internet and other alert systems, in warning of the threat of an impending emergency, co-ordination during an emergency and helping in recovery after an emergency.”

The inquiry will report to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, which Fisher chairs, and will encompass the effectiveness of telecommunications during emergencies, the impact of power blackouts and future implications of telecommunications under the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Fisher said the digital dividend’s potential role in emergency services would also be considered by the inquiry.

Bushfires, cyclones, floods and earthquakes in recent years have prompted significant responses from telcos and IT companies in attempts to mitigate against outages during disasters.

The Victorian bushfires in 2009, for example, led to a $3 million rollout of unmanned security cameras on fire lookout towers, communicating over Telstra’s Next G network, as well as mounted plans by the state government to track convicted arsonists by GPS.

Power outages and physical damage as a result of flooding in Queensland during January this year led to a break in fibre backhaul provided by Nextgen networks and outages at AAPT’s data centres.

Minimal damage was also caused to overhead fibre cabling installed as part of the NBN rollout in Townsville, though wholesaler NBN Co maintained only three cables had to be replaced.

Telstra is expected to fully repair telecommunications downed in Queensland within three months, though will be replacing much of the damaged copper wiring with additional copper.

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