Warrnambool's lessons: Telcos, government need to emphasise infrastructure resilience

Telstra has so far implemented 11 out of 22 of its own recommendations on preventing a repeat of the aftermath of the Warrnambool exchange fire

Aftermath of the Warrnambool exchange fire. Image credit: Telstra.

Aftermath of the Warrnambool exchange fire. Image credit: Telstra.

Researchers at RMIT University have released the final version of a report into the 2012 fire in Telstra's exchange in Warrnambool, south-west Victoria. The fire, which erupted on 22 November, 2012, knocked out telecommunications for some 20 days, affecting up to 100,000 people in the region.

The report recommends the department works with Telstra and NBN Co to study ways of improving the resilience of telecommunications infrastructure and advocates raising awareness of the need for businesses, government agencies and individuals to plan for telecommunications outages.

"Business and individuals should consider telecommunications preparedness along with bushfire and other emergency response," Gregory said in a statement. Gregory, senior lecturer at RMIT's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, acted as chief investigator for the report.

"While the immediate effects of the Warrnambool exchange fire have now receded, the lessons learnt from the Warrnambool exchange fire should not be lost."

The report comes as a document (PDF) published Telstra reveals it has implemented half of the 22 recommendations contained in its own report. The telco is "on track to complete the remaining recommendations"

The report compiled by the telco and released in March last year blamed an electrical fault for the disaster, which damaged 60 per cent of the Warrnambool exchange.

"The recommendations from the investigation into the fire are targeted at multi-functional sites in regional locations that meet specific selection criteria," the document made public by the telco today — Telstra Warrnambool Exchange fire recommendation implementation progress executive summary — states.

"The investigation across regional Australia found 118 sites that have a similar, multi-functional mix to those found at Warrnambool.

"These 118 sites house critical network equipment providing multiple network functions - Ethernet and Transmission, Regional and Local Area Aggregation and PSTN parenting. Generally they have a combination of two or more of Key Transmission Points (KTP), Local Access Switch (LAS) or Ethernet Aggregation Points (EAP) functionality.

"A site failure at these locations may affect a greater number of customers (and a wider geographical area) than a site which only accommodates equipment providing a single network function. Some of these sites are subject to multiple recommendations while other sites may only be subject to a single recommendation."

The Department of Communications conducted its own inquiry into the disaster, with a report issued in May last year. The findings of both the report issued by the department and Telstra's own report on the fire were incorporated into the RMIT report.

"Telstra reported that there were 135 exchange services, 85 schools, 20 hospitals, 27 police stations, 92 fire stations and 14 SES services affected by the outage," the RMIT report states.

"The one remaining telecommunications service in the region, which was the Optus 3G mobile cellular network, was also affected during the outage by an unrelated lightning strike on a telecommunications tower."

The lessons from the disaster should be incorporated into disaster planning and emergency management by government at the local, state and federal levels, states the report by Mark Gregory and Kaye Scholfield, which was funded by a grant from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.

Today's report accuses the government's Inquiry to learn lessons from the Warrnambool exchange fire of not tackling some of the issues raised by the disaster.

"The Department of Communications report skirts around the issues surrounding single point of failure telecommunications facilities and correctly identifies that the existing telecommunications networks including the NBN could fail due to network design that incorporates single point of failure telecommunications facilities," the RMIT report states.

"The Department of Communications report fails to address some of the more difficult questions such as the need for improved resilience, how this is to occur and what options exist for the government and the telecommunications industry to work together to develop best practice guides. It also does not go far enough in recommending the implementation of network design changes to remove single point of failure telecommunications facility dependency."

"What caught many people off guard was how interconnected telecommunications infrastructure is – from monitoring systems, to financial transactions, to interacting with health, education and children's service," said Scholfield, senior manager of RMIT University’s Hamilton site.

"Bushfire preparedness has become an important annual activity for many Australians and in a similar way preparing for the loss of telecommunications infrastructure should be a routine activity carried out by government, business, community organisations and individuals," the RMIT report states.

"Understanding the far-reaching social impacts of a telecommunications outage must be central to impact assessment and to planning for risk mitigation in a society with an ever-growing dependence on telecommunications infrastructure."

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Tags telecomsTelstraTelecommunicationsWarrnamboolresiliency

More about Department of CommunicationsNBN CoOptusRMITRMIT UniversityTelstra CorporationTelstra Corporation

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