Australia's Terrible Telecom Infrastructure Leaving People Without Vital Info During Bushfire Crisis

A Rural Fire Service firefighter Trevor Stewart views a flank of a fire on January 11, 2020, in Tumbarumba, Australia.
A Rural Fire Service firefighter Trevor Stewart views a flank of a fire on January 11, 2020, in Tumbarumba, Australia.
Photo: Getty Images

Australia’s terrible communications infrastructure is typically just an everyday headache for Australians, who have the slowest internet of any wealthy nation in the world. But in the middle of a bushfire crisis, access to critical information on the internet can be the difference between life and death.

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Australia’s ABC News aired a new report this weekend about the ways that people are struggling to get information during the bushfire crisis—a climate change disaster that, since September, has destroyed over 15.6 million acres of land, killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals, and taken the lives of at least 25 people.

Parts of Australia have lost mobile phone service and internet access during the crisis, and that’s a huge problem when people need government warnings to know when they should evacuate their homes to flee the fires.

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Australia has been way behind the rest of the world in implementing things like high-speed internet, but that was supposed to change in the 2010s. The Australian government introduced a scheme called the National Broadband Network (NBN) that was intended to get every home connected to fast internet within a few years. But the rollout has been slow, the fiber installation has cost way more than first anticipated, and technical problems have plagued the service.

Frustratingly, the NBN scheme has mandated that traditional copper telephone wires—the same wires that work even when the power goes out—be stripped out of everyone’s homes. It’s not clear why the wires have been removed when coaxial internet wires simply could have been added to the existing infrastructure. But that terrifies people who live in rural parts of Australia.

“The main thing that would help would be, if there’s existing copper line communication, just leave it there,” one woman recently hit with bushfires in rural Australia told ABC News. “The cost of maintaining it can’t be anywhere near the cost of losing a whole suburb worth of houses and people and businesses.”

As the report notes, Australia doesn’t have any kind of national emergency telecommunications plan, something that the conservative Liberal government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, should probably get working on as soon as possible.

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But Australians have expressed frustration that their federal government isn’t there for them in a time of crisis. And the copper telephone wires in their homes, which can work even when the power goes out, is being ripped out of their houses for no good reason. Ironically enough, it’s tremendously old school forms of communication like radio and traditional landlines that can be the real lifesavers when shit hits the fan.

What does the Australian government say about all of this? The Morrison administration seems to be defending its choices in stripping homes of copper wires, something that’s very on-brand for a government that has repeatedly dropped the ball as the country burns.

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“The existing local loop, the copper local loop, is not impervious to bushfires,” the Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told ABC News. “If a bushfire goes through, and power is lost to an exchange, then services will cease operating.”

Even on a good day, the land down under struggles with things like internet access. Despite being a tremendously wealthy country, (even the wealthiest by some measures) Australia is currently ranked 64th in the world for fixed broadband internet speeds, behind Belize, Grenada, and Kosovo. But with a national emergency raging, a lack of critical telecom infrastructure becomes a life and death issue that won’t be fixed anytime soon without dramatic action from the government.

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Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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DISCUSSION

lennyvalentin
Lenny Valentin

It’s a pretty terrible excuse for the aussie gov’t to claim bushfires would make telephone exchanges go down; these things have battery backups that let them continue to operate for many hours; big exchanges have their own gen-sets. Certainly this would afford authorities enough time to get warnings out to people even if the power grid is down in an area.