Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Communications after the quake: Good, but could do better

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Events in Christchurch give reason to ask if our phone networks are tough enough.

Don Gould (right) helped dairy owner Peter Qu by rigging up a replacement Eftpos line. Photo / Supplied
Don Gould (right) helped dairy owner Peter Qu by rigging up a replacement Eftpos line. Photo / Supplied

Ok, standby - the ground is shaking ... No it's stopped, we're fine thank you."

That was Don Gould on the phone on Monday from Mairehau, Christchurch, as another - thankfully small - aftershock hit. The difficult fact of life in Christchurch these days is: "You just do not know if the ground is going to shake again."

Gould and his wife run a digital printing and website-design business, and are doing their best to carry on as normal despite having an unsettled 3-year old.

"We're OK, fortunately," he says. By some quirk their house has both power and water and the sewerage pipes aren't broken. Other houses nearby are still without services. How long it lasts is anyone's guess.

South towards Richmond, the sewerage system is broken and sewage is coming up through the road.

When the earthquake hit, Gould's biggest problem was being without power for nine hours. He kicked himself that only a couple of weeks earlier he had turned down an offer of a generator. Had he accepted he would have had full internet access, because the robust TelstraClear hybrid fibre coaxial cable he connects to was working fine. But his router, TV and other electrical appliances were off the grid.

For communication purposes it was yesterday's technology - radio - and relatively low-tech text messaging which saved the day.

After the first earthquake in September, Gould, like most Christchurch residents, was well prepared with batteries. He'd also equipped himself with an inverter to turn car electricity into 240V power to recharge his mobile, and other battery-powered devices, when they conked out. (Disaster-readiness tip: at the least, always keep a cigarette-lighter power adapter in your car to recharge your mobile phone.)

But while Christchurch's mobile networks largely stayed up during the crisis, there were problems. Texting between carriers failed for a time, apparently because of congestion. It's a situation that warrants further investigation. The cost imbalance for texting between carriers is bad enough, but inter-operability failures at a time of crisis are totally unacceptable. If the Government is still looking for a reason to regulate mobile inter-network texting connectivity, then this is it.

The day after the quake, Gould found another problem in his neighbourhood. For some reason the TelstraClear fixed-line phone service in the area was down, rendering the Eftpos terminal at the local dairy useless.

Gould tried to get the terminal working using voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) services via the dairy's TelstaClear cable service, which was still working. When that didn't work he discovered the doctor three doors down had a working Telecom line, even though the phone system had fallen off the wall during the quake.

Gould, who just happened to have several hundred meters of telephone cable that he'd bought for another project, asked the doctor if could use the line to jerry rig the dairy's Eftpos terminal. The doctor said fine, so Gould connected to the doctor's fax line, dragged cable down the hall, out the backdoor, over the fence, along a wall, across three roofs and into the dairy's back door. "The community was pretty happy with that," says Gould.

But while Gould's endeavours are a great example of both Christchurch community spirit and geek ingenuity, the earthquake also provides an opportunity to examine the durability of our phone services. It shows how vital these services - especially mobile services - are in a crisis. It has to be said that all carriers' maintenance teams on the ground were nothing short of heroic, especially in the face of concerns for their own families, in what they did to restore broken services and provide back-up generator power as quickly as possible

But shortcomings were exposed. The mobile networks were at times under severe strain. The question is whether they need to be designed with more headroom for emergency use.

Similarly, the fixed-line networks held up well but Chorus reports some major cable damage affecting both its copper and fibre-based services in the east of the city.

Chorus says the liquefaction of the ground and the excess water it created has not affected any of its roadside cabinets so far. But it has affected its underground network, with both fibre-optic and copper-based cables getting over-stretched and breaking sealed joints, allowing moisture to enter into the network.

On the plus side, Chorus' new cabinets seem well designed to withstand earthquakes. Each is placed on a 2-tonne concrete plinth, which raises it above ground level to help reduce the risk of moisture entering the electronics. But their Achille's heel is undoubtedly their battery back-up, which will operate for four to eight hours depending on the number of customers using the equipment.

As the Christchurch quake showed, in many areas power was out for much longer than that. In some areas it is yet to be restored, so large parts of Christchurch's telecommunications network are still relying on back-up power. In some areas the cabinets are still offline.

Once again we have to ask: Have the networks been designed with sufficient durability in mind? In the move to broadband, it's an issue that's only going to get worse.

Without back-up power, when the lights go out, so does the router, the internet and the VOIP phone - communication that's proved so vital to getting through the crisis.

As Gould has shown, consumers do have contingency options - be it battery back-up, inverters, generators or solar power.

But the lesson in this earthquake for network operators and the Government is that our communications risk management, while good, could be better.

chris.barton@nzherald.co.nz

- NZ Herald

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

Read more by Chris Barton

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