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Federal Senate inquiry likely to result in major emergency telecommunications programs

by Paris Cowan •
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There few scenarios in which functioning telecommunications networks are more crucial to the public’s welfare than large-scale natural disasters, a point the summer of 2010-11 has proven in a particularly dramatic manner.

The performance of the Australian communications infrastructure in times of greatest need will be put under the microscope in the coming months, with the Commonwealth Senate announcing an inquiry into the performance of communications networks and emergency warning systems under emergency conditions.

The recommendations of the inquiry, which are due to be handed down in November, are more than likely to result in government funding being directed toward emergency telecommunications programs.

Intermedium’sBudget IT tool identified a boost in the emergency communications funding allocated to the state’s agencies following the Victorian Black Saturday bushfire disaster of February 2009.

In the 2009-10 and 2010-11 Victorian budgets this included $28.39 for telecommunications upgrades as part of the inter-agency ‘Project 000 Response’ initiative, and another $7.6 million for communications equipment at the Department of Justice.

At Federal level, Budget IT identified nearly $40 million directed toward emergency warning and communications ICT infrastructure in 2009-10, including $6.8 million for a Wireless Priority Service System for crisis communications, and $30.5 million for the Bureau of Meteorology to implement a Next Generation Forecast and Warning System.

This latest inquiry will be conducted by the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications. It is the result of a motion proposed by South Australian Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher on 3 March, who is Chair of the committee.

Senator Fisher is a frequent sparring partner of Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy, over the divisive National Broadband Network.

According to the terms of reference, the inquiry will seek to assess the “effectiveness of communication networks, including radio, telephone, Internet and other alert systems (in particular drawing on the spate of emergencies and natural disasters of the 2010/2011 Australian summer)”.

It will investigate any emerging technologies that could be used to achieve better response and recovery outcomes in the instance of any future natural disasters.

It will also look into how communications systems hold up during power outages, such as those which were prevalent across south east Queensland during the January floods, and which were responsible for leaving many telecommunications exchanges across the region without any functionality and phones without any coverage.

The capacity of future for telecommunications infrastructure to stand up to extreme weather episodes will also form part of the scope of the inquiry, with a special focus on the NBN.

Senator Fisher recently challenged Stephen Conroy in Parliament on the durability of the government’s fibre network.

“Has the government assessed, or will the government assess, the relative risks posed by natural disasters to a national broadband network based on fibre, including fibre swinging from poles, versus broadband based on wireless?” she inquired in February this year.

The Communications Minister replied, “for those who continue to not keep up with the technology debate, fibre connects every single mobile phone tower.

“A wireless system does not work on the basis that a phone call goes from my phone and it flies all the way through the air to your phone, wherever you are standing in the country. It actually goes to the nearest tower, and then it is sucked down into the ground and, guess what, it is transmitted along a piece of fibre all the way to the phone tower nearest to you, and it comes up there and then gets transmitted.”

It is likely that one issue of debate amongst the committee members (who include Doug Cameron (ALP); Scott Ludlam (GRN); Ron Boswell (NAT); Judith Troeth (LIB); Dana Wortley (ALP), Senator Fisher) will be the ability of telecommunications-based alert systems to function when communications networks fail, or when weather events hit too quickly for an alert to reach those at risk.

In the wake of the Black Saturday Disaster, the Federal Government established the Emergency Alert system, which could be used by state a territory emergency services agencies to call or SMS persons in at-risk locations with a warning of the imminent threat.

However, the speed at which floodwaters came through Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley meant that authorities were taken by surprise. The State Emergency Service did not issue a flash flooding alert until several hours later.

The report of the Senate Committee will be tabled just months before that of the Independent Commission of Inquiry established by the Queensland Government.

The terms of reference of this state inquiry also herald a telecommunications focus, vowing to assess the “adequacy of equipment and communications systems” during the floods, and the “adequacy of forecasts and early warning systems particularly as they related to the flooding events in Toowoomba, and the Lockyer and Brisbane Valleys”.

Submissions to the Commonwealth Senate inquiry close on 21 April 2011, and the report is due to be handed down on 2 November 2011.

The Queensland Independent Commission of Inquiry will deliver its findings on 17 January 2012, with an interim report due on 1 August 2011.


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