Snowy power hangs by a single thread

An unreliable single fibre-optic cable and no alternative telecomms options put Cooma-based Snowy Hydro Electric on the back foot.

The electricity generator is repeatedly being forced onto back-up and emergency data and communications systems just to maintain real-time operations, due to the unreliable service from Telstra and a complete lack of alternative telecommunications infrastructure or services in the Snowy Mountains region.

When the single cable from Canberra goes down, the power utility's control room in Cooma is left isolated from the National Electricity Market trading system. The system sends forward orders for electricity demand and forms an integral part of the enterprise's commercial systems architecture, allowing quick response to demands from customers. Hydroelectric supply is particularly important to load balancing the electricity grid, as its online time is substantially faster than other means of generation.

While sound back-up and redundancy datacoms do exist (Snowy Hydro is prevented from speaking about them due to critical infrastructure security measures), the current situation is far from satisfactory according to Ian Cooke, Snowy Hydro's information and control systems executive.

"We would dearly love to have a different infrastructure and service provider. It's less about [addressing Telstra's] performance and more about eliminating single points of failure. If it all goes through one line, there are always going to be [issues]. It's pretty dramatic when it happens," Cooke told Computerworld.

By dramatic, Cooke means that most of the Snowy region can be left without landlines, mobiles or even 000 emergency services from Cooma, through Bredbo to Jindabyne and then Thredbo -- depending on where the cable fails. Computerworld understands the cable has been dug up, knocked over or burnt out with near seasonal regularity, with restoration times, according to locals, of up to 48 hours. Cooke said he understands the link has also fallen over at the Canberra exchange.

"In the last year we've had three outages that took out Cooma. We've spoken to them [Telstra] about it, at a pretty high level, and to be fair they've responded. We get our own account manager that lets us know what's exactly what's going on," Cooke says, adding that even his CEO went in to bat for the IT and communications team.

Cooke says an additional Telstra fibre optic line from the Bega exchange should eventually solve the problem, although it would be preferable if another telco came into play in the area.

Telstra country wide area general manager for SouthEast NSW and ACT, David Gunsberg, said the new link "will ensure our customers in the region have a continuous phone service in the event of a cable cut or any other interruption”. Work is understood to have commenced last month and is due for completion by June.

The situation with Telstra is in stark contrast to the way Snowy Hydro has chosen to manage its own ICT rollout, faced with remote and inaccessible areas where even microwaves prove too difficult. Rather than go over existing generation infrastructure, fibre optic has been laid inside the concrete of the labyrinthine network of tunnels that carry the water to generation turbines to help form an uninterruptable ring.

In the Snowy the phones may well go down, but the lights always work.