Fri, 28 Aug 2020 - 18:19
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NSW Bushfire Inquiry telco recommendations support Commonwealth initiatives already underway

The severe 2019-20 bushfire season saw a magnificent response from Australians – but also exposed some gaps and weaknesses.

The Australian Government worked closely with state and territory governments, during the bushfires and in the aftermath, to provide assistance on the ground. As the level of government with responsibility for telecommunications, the Australian Government also worked with our major telecommunications companies, on both the immediate response and on how we can do a better job in the future. 

While much of the public focus in recent months has been on how we respond to COVID, behind the scenes plenty of work has continued to learn the lessons of last summer’s bushfires and develop our responses.

In my portfolio we have looked carefully at what went right and what went wrong in how our telecommunications networks served Australians during the bushfires. In late January I convened an industry roundtable – attended by the CEOs of Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and Vocus amongst others.

A key action agreed at the round table was an industry wide review, prepared by the Australian Communications and Media Authority working with industry peak bodies the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and Communications Alliance.  ACMA’s report, issued in April, noted 1390 facilities impacted by bushfires, 51 per cent experienced outages of four hours or more, 23 per cent less than four hours and 23 percent had no outage. Of the outages, 88 percent were caused by a loss of power. Direct fire damage accounted for only one per cent of outages.

In May, I announced $37.1 million of funding to support Australia’s telecommunications networks to respond better to future bushfire emergencies, the Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters package (STAND.)

STAND will see network providers improve resilience of mobile networks; allow the purchase of temporary telecommunications infrastructure to improve telecommunications for rural and country fire service depots and evacuation centres; and deliver a pilot program over the next two bushfire seasons to improve the information provided about access to telecommunications in emergencies.

$10 million will be allocated to fund portable communications facilities. $1.7 million of this funding will be provided to NBN Co to purchase five extra Road Muster satellite trucks and 12 portable satellite kits to provide connectivity where needed during emergencies, while the remainder of the funding will be allocated through a competitive grant process.

The competitive element of the temporary telco infrastructure deployments fund is now open for applications until 14 September 2020.

Telecommunications issues have also been considered in the Australian Government’s Royal Commission and the NSW Government’s independent Bushfire Inquiry. This week the NSW Inquiry released its report, including a number of telecommunications-related recommendations.

I welcome this report, which provides further detailed information which will be helpful in the work we are doing in the Communications portfolio.  Regulation of telecommunications is an Australian Government responsibility, but it is very important to draw on the views and expertise of state and territory governments, for example concerning the experience of their frontline fire and emergency services agencies in receiving communications services.

The report raises the issue of spectrum for ‘public safety mobile broadband’, which is a proposal advanced by the states and territories that there should be a dedicated mobile communications network specifically for emergency services.  The idea remains at an early stage, with the states and territories presently saying that the next step is a trial working with one or more telecommunications companies. 

The Australian Government has responsibility for the allocation of radio frequency spectrum. I have recently written to state and territory ministers to confirm that I have set aside spectrum for a national public safety mobile broadband capability, so that if the states and territories can develop the proposal the spectrum is there to support it. 

In the past fortnight I met with NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello to discuss this issue and agree further joint actions between the Australian and NSW Governments on how we can make telecommunications networks more resilient in the face of natural disasters such as bushfires.  A joint priority is ensuring that state emergency services organisations have access to real time information about the location of vital network assets so these can be prioritised for defence against fire threats. 

A timeline of the Australian Government’s work on improving telecommunications to better meet bushfire risks is below.

More information on what the Government is doing to increase telecommunications resilience is available on the  Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications website.


Timeline of work by industry and government before, during and since the fires:

November 2019

Industry undertook preparatory discussions through the Communications Sector Group (CSG) in advance of the bushfires. Industry began to pre-position assets.

December 2019

Minister Fletcher’s department sent out reporting protocols to industry, to remind industry to provide reports of outages. 

December 2019 /January 2020

As the bushfires gained intensity, the industry initiated recovery protocols to restore services as they were affected.  The ACMA later reviewed the performance of the industry – a quarter of facilities that were affected did not experience any outage, a further quarter experienced outages of less than 4 hours, and half experienced outage of four hours or more, largely due to failures of the power networks.

December 2019 /January 2020

Daily reporting initiated by Minister Fletcher’s department, provided to key Commonwealth agencies, including the Department of Home Affairs’ Crisis Co-ordination Centre.

7 January 2020

Minister Fletcher wrote to major telecommunications carriers, including NBN Co, and Communications Alliance thanking them for their efforts and asking they continue to do whatever they can to provide Australian communities facing and recovering from bushfires with communications services, including temporary services.

10 & 16 January 2020

Fact sheets on communications access during the bushfire emergency update released.

21 January 2020

Minister Fletcher visited the South Coast of NSW, seeing the damage from the fires at Malua Bay, Batemans Bay and Moruya.

22 January 2020

Minister Fletcher convenes a roundtable meeting with Australia’s major telecommunications companies to discuss network resilience in the recent severe bushfires. The roundtable agreed to the following actions:

  • The roundtable agreed that ACMA, working with industry peak bodies Communications Alliance and AMTA, will conduct an industry-wide review into the impact of the bushfires on telecommunications networks, and how the operators responded
  • Communications Alliance will lead, on behalf of industry, the development of a national common operating model for telecommunications disaster management to underpin efficient interaction with state government lead agencies
  • AMTA will work with industry to ensure emergency coordination agencies have better information about the location of critical mobile infrastructure.

February 2020

NBN Co Limited sought Expressions of Interest (EOIs) until 30 June 2020 from retail service providers interested in partnering with NBN Co to identify critical services within disaster affected communities they were delivering which, as a result of damage caused by a natural disaster, cannot be restored to normal operation within a reasonable timeframe.

3 March 2020

Minister Fletcher wrote to Minister Taylor about greater collaboration between the electricity and telecommunications sector, with the view for timely advice about the status of power. As a result, peak bodies are in frequent discussions.

1 May 2020

Minister Fletcher releases the ACMA report ‘Impacts of the 2019-20 bushfires on the telecommunications networks’.

May 2020

Communications Alliance releases draft Guideline on a national common operating model for telecommunications disaster management for consultation with relevant stakeholders until the end of May 2020.

12 May 2020

Minister Fletcher announces $37.1 million to strengthen telecommunications resilience in bushfire and disaster prone areas so that communities can stay connected during emergencies (the Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters (STAND) package). consisting of:

  • $18 million to improve the resilience of regional and remote mobile phone base stations.
  • $10 million for portable communications facilities to allow quicker service restoration.
  • $2.1 million for a new program to deliver improved coordination and communications.
  • $7 million for enhanced telecommunications for rural fire authorities and evacuation centres.

June 2020

Amendments to the finance regulations to allow expenditure of funding for STAND.

February to August 2020 (ongoing)

The CSG meets weekly to fortnightly to discuss bushfire and disaster related preparedness, meetings since March have focussed on Covid-19.

Early August 2020

Competitive grants program guidelines released. The objectives of the program are to:

  • increase and improve telecommunications resilience in communities recently affected by severe bushfires or at risk of natural disasters in the future
  • enhance the capability to restore services to areas affected by bushfires or natural disasters by quickly deploying temporary facilities to address gaps caused by outages

21 August 2020

Essence Communications is engaged to undertake research about the community’s understanding of telecommunications in emergencies and natural disasters.

24 August 2020

Competitive grants program opens.

27 August 2020

Communications Alliance publishes Guidelines for a national common operating model for telecommunications disaster management, titled: titled ‘G663:2020 Telecommunications – Emergency Communications Protocol’.