Deadly wildfires that have been sweeping through parts of southeastern Australia over the past few days, damaging thousands of homes, have also exposed the fragility of the country’s electricity and communications infrastructure.
Hundreds of separate wildfires have left tens of thousands of people in New South Wales without power, phone and internet connections. In a crisis, this is not simply an inconvenience – losing access to these services could mean the difference between life and death.
In one town, Bateman Bay, more than 30,000 people in one fell swoop have lost access to pretty much all modern-era utilities like electricity, the internet, water supply, sewerage management, and phone service.
In the ongoing Australian wildfire disaster, it seems that a reliable electricity source has emerged as the single point of failure in the country’s overall infrastructure – that one malfunctioning component that not only takes down the rest of the system, but also indicates that the system might be poorly designed and/or engineered.
Australian government’s NBN Co enterprise, a monopoly tasked with building and operating a wholesale national broadband network, on January 1 announced on Twitter that bushfires were causing “some network outages due to a loss of main power.”
As a result of ongoing bushfires, we are experiencing some network outages due to a loss of main power in the Gippsland area and around the NSW South Coast.
Our main priority is restoring services as soon as it is safe for our people to work in the area. (1/2)
— nbn™ Australia (@NBN_Australia) January 2, 2020
The company also said that repair crews would be sent to individual areas when it became safe to work there, and that besides being able to physically access a site, service restoration times might also depend on the workers’ ability to “connect generators.”
NBN has a Downdetector page that allows Australians to learn about the current status of the service and report any outages – via Twitter or Facebook.
On Twitter, one of the social networks where NBN seems to be doing its customer service, some Australians were quick to point out that the system, apparently touted as “a fail safe communications backbone,” is proving to be anything but, when put to this kind of test.
Last spring, NBN was criticized as a money-pit that had a “botched rollout.”
Meanwhile, Australians are bracing for more bad news: New South Wales PM Gladys Berejiklian was quoted as saying that although work was being done to restore internet and phone service in the affected areas, wildfires would once again pick up over the weekend.