Bushfires commission critical of telcos

Telecommunications companies have not done enough to ensure communities can rely on phones for information in an emergency, the bushfires royal commission has suggested.

Commission chair Mark Binskin has taken the major telcos to task for not working together more closely to address the loss of communications during bushfires.

He said Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and the NBN were the primary source of information for most of the community, noting the importance of phone alerts in the emergency warning system.

“There are some that still rely on radio but you are predominantly the major source of information for the community in a system that is now being designed where the community is fed information to be able to make decisions for themselves on when to go, and that’s the way the warning system works.

“And I will be honest with you, I’m not sure that as a group you’ve actually looked at it in that way.”

Mr Binskin said there were no doubt challenges but pointed to evidence that previous efforts to get the communications sector to work closer together has “basically been useless”.

About 1400 telecommunications facilities were impacted at the peak of the bushfire season in December and January, largely due to power outages.

The sites targeted for stand-by power systems like batteries and generators tended to be those servicing a large number of customers or part of the core network.

“That seems to be a commercial risk-based assessment rather than necessarily a risk-based assessment based on the environment that’s there,” Mr Binskin said.

If someone calls triple zero and has no service from their provider, the call will still go through via another carrier. But that does not happen for emergency text alerts.

Mr Binskin said triple zero was a last resort.

“What we’ve determined from these fires is by that by the time people get to that triple zero, it’s a disaster. In fact, it’s a last resort.

“They’re there because they haven’t been able to get the information they need to make decisions that are appropriate for the situation.”

The telcos said they did make assessments about the risk of communities being isolated, or if they were remote or in a bushfire-prone area.

“We do apply another lens on top of the customer impact in a large site,” Telstra executive Channa Seneviratne told the hearing on Thursday.

Mr Binskin said the commission had also received positive comments from the community about the telcos being right behind the first responders in going in, as they were still fighting fires, to restore services.

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