RMIT University report warns there is no guarantee Telstra fire won't happen again somewhere

Telstra’s Bill Mundy with the new isolation switches that have been installed at the Warrnambool exchange.
Telstra’s Bill Mundy with the new isolation switches that have been installed at the Warrnambool exchange.

DESPITE vital lessons being learnt from Warrnambool’s disastrous 2012 Telstra exchange fire there is no guarantee it won’t happen again somewhere around Australia.

That’s the stark conclusion from a landmark research report by RMIT University into consumer and social impacts of the Warrnambool outage which hit about 100,000 customers across the south-west for up to three weeks and cost about $1 million in lost revenue.

“There remains an unknown level of risk for other Telstra exchanges, particularly major urban facilities, including NBN Co’s facilities,” the RMIT University research final report said.

Research team chief investigator Dr Mark Gregory warned yesterday the new national broadband network was at risk because it was routed through existing telecommunication hubs which lacked adequate duplication of equipment and cables.

“Outages happen every day somewhere in Australia and more should be done to avoid major disruption,” he said.

“The focus of the NBN design should be to build resilience into the network, but I don’t see evidence.”

Telstra is confident it can implement 22 key recommendations from an extensive inquiry into the fire to help bullet-proof its 118 major telecommunication nodes nationally.

Only half of the recommendations have been implemented, but Telstra’s regional manager Bill Mundy yesterday predicted a further six would be rolled out by June 30 with the remaining five to be completed next financial year.

“The fire has been a catalyst for change across the whole organisation in managing our disaster response and reducing risk of future events at our exchanges,” he said.

Mr Mundy defended the speed of implementing recommendations.

“It cost about $17m to refurbish the exchange and many millions of dollars to carry out further improvements which are being rolled out nationally,” he said.

“We can guarantee community lessons have been learnt and implemented to better our response in the future.”

Improvements include new disaster recovery plans, improved maintenance, more checks for hot spots, better smoke detectors, electrical isolator switches and more mobile exchanges as back-ups.

Remote switching has been developed to turn off outdated equipment and save millions of dollars in electricity costs.

The RMIT team at Hamilton was allocated $47,000 by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network to carry out the study and surveyed about 600 people across south-west Victoria.

Dr Gregory said business operators and individuals should consider telecommunications preparedness along with bushfire and other emergency responses.

He said a recent example of vulnerability was at Wollongong where flooding blacked out communications affecting more than 6000 people for up to a month.

“The buck stops with the company providing the service and with Telstra you should expect best practice,” Dr Gregory said.