Green concerns raise ire for NBN battery backup

Updated: Potential environmental impact of recycling millions of batteries a concern as NBN installs default backups for fibre homes

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy is preparing to consult with internet service providers on the potential impact of recycling backup batteries for equipment installed as part of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

The batteries are currently being installed by NBN Co contractors free of charge on all premises connected by fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) technology. The batteries are expected to provide power to the network termination unit at homes and business for a minimum of three hours in the event of a power failure, allowing users to make emergency calls.

The batteries themselves are likely to last up to five years and NBN Co and service providers will both be able to monitor the lifespan of the backup equipment, with an alarm set to warn both operators when the battery requires replacement.

According to NBN Co chief executive, Mike Quigley, the service provider will be responsible for maintenance and replacement of the battery after it is installed.

An NBN Co spokesperson confirmed the batteries would require replacement every five years.

However, in a Senate estimates hearing this week, Greens senator Scott Ludlam questioned the potential environmental impact the millions of batteries could have when they do require replacement and ultimately recycling.

Marianne Cullen, first assistant secretary of NBN implementation at the department, told senators the department would relieve any responsibility from NBN Co, and was looking to address the environmental and emergency service issues with industry.

“We’re currently in the process of designing an appropriate stakeholder consultation process in the department and expect that to happen in the next couple of months,” she said.

An investigation into the battery issue last year by Communications Alliance’s NBN working group led to suggestions the backup be provided as an optional install for those users who require a voice service.

Layer 10 consultant and former lead of the working group, Paul Brooks, told Computerworld Australia the use of an optional battery installation could potentially alleviate the environmental impact by reducing the number of batteries installed in the first place.

“Anybody who actually needed the battery backup could have it, but the people who didn’t need the battery backup because they’re using phone handsets or mobiles or other means of communicating shouldn’t be required to have the battery to reduce the huge environmental impact of having tens of millions of batteries replaced every few years,” he said.

The batteries are primarily designed to back up the voice service on NBN equipment and will only provide power to the telephone emulation ports in the event of a failure. The lack of a backup option for data has been suggested as possibly hazardous as RSPs may offer VoIP services over the existing data connection, rather than using the emulated telephone port on customer equipment.

Equipment supplier Alcatel-Lucent did not respond to requests for comment at time of writing.

According to technical specifications released by the network wholesaler last year, satellite-connected homes will not receive the battery backup device by default, as the approximately three per cent of Australian premises will only be offered a voice service through existing universal service obligation arrangements, or through a VoIP service provided over the data connection.

Those premises with fixed wireless connections will be unlikely to receive the battery backup as well, as they will retain a copper line for emergency calls.

However, both Quigley and Brooks warned that, even with battery backup for the voice ports on customer equipment, the prevalent use of cordless phones and handsets requiring power meant that the battery would be useless in emergency situations.

“When people are using a cordless phone, it doesn’t work when the power goes out,” Quigley said.

Quigley also revealed at Senates estimates that NBN Co continued to investigate a “reserve button” for the battery backup unit. In a statement to ZDNet last month, a spokesperson for the wholesaler indicated the button, which could only be pressed by an authorised technician, could be used to deliver a further 25 per cent of the battery’s power reserve after five hours of use without main line power.

Communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, called the reserve power button a “break glass in case of emergency” option.

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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