Bill seeks to ensure 24-hour mobile phone coverage in high-risk bushfire areas

21 Jul 2020

Posted September 4, 2017

With just months to go until the next fire danger season, the Federal Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie wants to bring in a law that would ensure the mobile phones of residents in high bushfire risk areas will work for at least 24 hours if the power goes out.

The Nick Xenophon Team representative in the Lower House today introduced the Telecommunications Amendment (Guaranteeing Mobile Phone Service in Bushfire Zones) Bill 2017.

The Private Member’s Bill would compel telecommunication carriers to provide 24-hour standby power in key mobile base stations operating in high risk bushfire areas and would make the the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) responsible for determining and enforcing regulations.

“Despite all this talk about being a country of innovation, communities in Mayo and elsewhere are more vulnerable to the threat of bushfire now than they were 50 years ago, and something needs to be done,” Rebekha said.

“At least back then then you had a copper network landline that worked.

“Now with the introduction of the National Broadband Network (NBN), particularly fibre-to-the-node technology, your landline isn’t guaranteed to work and neither is the internet.

“And my community now knows from experience that the battery life in local mobile phone towers is four hours if they are lucky and the battery life in local telephone exchanges doesn’t last long either.

“More and more emergency alerts are being pushed out on mobile platforms and more people are using mobile phones to make informed decisions and emergency calls and yet nothing is being done to guarantee this technology can be relied on at critical times.

“Taxpayers will have spent almost $600 million for carriers to build or upgrade more than 760 towers under rounds one and two of the Mobile Black Spot Program.

“The least we can expect is that these carriers will invest in technology to make sure the towers work during the first 24-hours of a major incident or a Catastrophic Fire Day when power is often cut as a precaution.”

Besides responding to constituents’ concerns about losing the NBN during power outages, Rebekha said she was prompted to act when a storm event after Christmas last year damaged the electricity distribution network and left 15 Adelaide Hills communities in her electorate without power for up to five days.

These are communities without access to mains water that need electricity to pump water and run sewage systems.

“But one of the biggest concerns conveyed to me from affected residents was being cut off from the outside world and losing communication on day one during the fire danger season,” Rebekha said.

“If the only way you have of telling if a fire has started in your area is to go outside and look for smoke, then you’re in trouble.

“Given the high bushfire risk in the Mt Lofty Ranges, and our tragic history of major fires, we were incredibly lucky a fire didn’t start in that Christmas to New Year period.”

Affected communities held a series of public meetings after the storm event, inviting local leaders and agency representatives to attend and answer questions.

Residents published in report a May and one of 31 recommendations for action was a call for the Federal Government to work with teleco providers to ensure adequate back-up power in mobile base stations in vulnerable communities.

“My NXT colleague Senator Stirling Griff and I have raised this issue numerous times in Parliament but the urgency of the situation has failed to get through,” Rebekha said.

“After meeting with NBN representatives and basically being told to expect ‘zero’ access to the network during any power outage, we felt we had to act and bring in this Private Members Bill and we can only urge the Government in the strongest terms to take this on board.”

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