Issues raised over NBN’s role in disaster communications

Internode suggests NBN’s 121 points of interconnect is a major survivability design flaw

The National Broadband Network (NBN) will play a minor role in providing communications in a major natural disaster due to its low levels of redundancy and availability, according to the country’s fifth largest ISP, Internode.

At a public hearing into the capacity of communication networks and emergency warning systems to deal with emergencies and natural disasters, Internode general manager regulatory and corporate affairs, John Lindsay, said the company had particular concerns about the 121 points of interconnect and what that means for resilience and redundancy, and hence availability of voice services in particular in emergency situations.

“The public switch telephone network (PSTN) is often considered to be ‘five nines’ available whereas internet services are typically, when delivered with a service level agreement of ‘beyond best efforts’ is typically 98 to 99 per cent availability,” he said.

“You have to be very careful when planning networks to support emergency things like 000 calls to ensure that the actual availability of service to end users is actually meeting the requirements of end users.”

By way of example, Lindsay pointed to issues on the availability of power to run backbone infrastructure supporting voice and data services the NBN.

“There are concerns with the NBN with its fibre to premises network up to 150,000 premises may be connected at one single point of interconnection so achieving the necessary level of availability of that physical point of interconnection to support emergency uses is probably not feasible” he said.

“One single outage event caused by a cyclone or earthquake demolishing a building or a flood flooding the building could lead to huge numbers of people covering a large geographic area having no access to any telecommunications at all or possibly only legacy mobile telephone services — particularly in a world where the NBN is providing the backhaul for most [mobile] telephone services in an area.”

Lindsay argued that while having 121 points of interconnect made sense for the “lawyers at the ACCC”, it did not make sense to network engineers designing for resilient telecommunications networks.

“They look for a lot of physical redundancy and want a function which can be performed at one location be performed at second and ideally third location,” he said.

“They are also trying to make sure that when one location fails, it doesn’t take out millions or hundreds of thousands of services.

“Internode doesn’t believe any thought has been given to that in having this model of 121 points of interconnect in the National Broadband Network.”

Network survivability no longer a factor in network design

According to Lindsay, while the September 11 attacks in the US had served to highlight network survivability and disaster recoverability, these important factors relating to emergency communications have since faded from disaster planning.

“It needs to be explicitly stated that organisations bidding to supply these kinds of services need to be able to demonstrate how their solution survives and continues to function after the loss of key single points of failure,” he said.

“After September 11, disaster survivability became the most important factor when anybody was designing anything and it overrides costs…

“In designing telecommunications services, we have had a slow and steady shift in focus and I can’t understand how we have let ourselves get to the point where we are prepared to let 150,000 telephone services be concentrated to a single point of failure.

“A decade ago no one would ever dream of doing that.”

Also speaking at the hearing, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) argued that the federal government should not build a dedicated national emergency services network based on the 700Mhz spectrum and instead, leave it to the private market to supply telecommunications services during disasters.

According to AMTA chief executive director, Chris Althaus, such a network would cost tax payers billions and deprive industry of valuable spectrum.

“It is not just building a network; it is operating it and maintaining it in a very big country with a very small population,” he said.

“The needs in an emergency are sporadic — yes, there are peaks — but most of the time, there would be very low levels of activity and from a cost-benefit [perspective] that is very suspect.”

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @Tlohman

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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