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Building Resilient Telecom Infrastructure in Australia

Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, and an Australian telecommunications company have released findings of a joint nationwide project to improve bushfire resilience of critical telecommunications. The research analysed where there is a risk of damage to the network and where upgrades could reduce vulnerability to future bushfire events.

Since mid-2020, CSIRO and the telecom have collaborated on a study of the potential impacts of embers, radiation and flame on and around the telecom’s sites with telecommunications equipment. These learnings have been used to assess which sites were most at risk, and the priority site design changes.

Information on topography, fuel load, vegetation type and local bushfire weather severity was used to develop maps which then inform resiliency decisions for this critical infrastructure. The telecommunications company is implementing the recommended mitigations at two of its sites in Victoria, Seville East and Dixons Creek, as reference examples for a larger, longer-term resiliency program and also to act as demonstration sites to help other infrastructure owners understand the learnings.

The Managing Director Network of the telecom stated that the company continuously aims to improve its network’s resilience as they know communities rely heavily on their services, especially during natural disasters and extreme weather events. The collaboration with CSIRO has provided the company with the analysis to allow the firm to target the best ways to protect the network where it could be most vulnerable.

These bushfire hazards and planning maps are early examples of the types of products being developed by CSIRO’s National Bushfire Intelligence Capabilities (NBIC) project which is seeking to develop relevant bushfire hazard mapping products for a wide range of infrastructure types ranging from residential housing to critical infrastructure.

In addition to using the findings to identify and invest in the most impactful upgrades, the telecom has developed in-house training and site assessment tools to increase employees’ awareness of the threat to landscape and improve response preparedness. It has started training its contractors to improve the future design and builds or to call out existing site concerns.

CSIRO has a 70-year history of conducting bushfire research to help Australia respond to a changing and variable climate and build the resilience of our nation. CSIRO’s Research Leader for Bushfire Adaptation stated that CSIRO has provided the telecom with science and technology-based solutions that address a major threat facing all industries which rely on critical infrastructure: bushfires.

The research can inform resiliency decisions across a number of industries, including telecommunications, energy and emergency services. Resiliency learnings and improvements were an area where organisations must work together, exchange findings, and support each other for the greater benefit of all Australian communities.

The telecom is working with its industry association, Communications Alliance, to arrange for the sharing of knowledge and data with other companies and organisations. A nationally consistent and authoritative bushfire hazard and risk information approach amongst telecommunication infrastructure parties would help ensure services are available at the times people need them the most.

NSW published a bushfire inquiry report in August 2020 in which the need to equip firefighters with more advanced technology, such as drones, remote sensors, data science, and artificial intelligence (AI), to help them better understand, model, and predict bushfire behaviour, and respond more quickly was underscored.

The report stated that while noting that the 2019-20 fires were unlike anything seen in NSW before, the inquiry also notes that modern-day technology and research advances have made us more capable of responding to them than at any time before.

The inquiry also examined the communication problems that communities faced during the 2019-20 bushfires. It uncovered, based on findings by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, that most telecommunication outages were due to power failures rather than direct fire damage to communication assets.

As a result, the inquiry has pressed for Australian governments to revise the regulatory framework around giving government authorities access to information about all private and public critical infrastructures.

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