23 January 2024

Unable to call Triple Zero: Lives threatened by Telstra outage

| Matt Nicholls
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The lives of remote residents in the Far North continue to be put at risk by the region’s substandard telecommunications network after another Telstra outage left many in Cape York and the Torres Strait unable to make Triple Zero calls.

A lightning strike on a critical piece of Telstra infrastructure near Coen crippled the telco’s network from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, when technicians were able to make the repairs.

The outage impacted customers in Coen, Aurukun, Weipa, Mapoon, Napranum, Lockhart River, the Northern Peninsula and parts of the Torres Strait, including Thursday Island and Horn Island.

Both landline and mobile phones were impacted, and because Telstra has a virtual monopoly across the region, most people were unable to make calls to Triple Zero in the event of an emergency.

In Australia, when one network provider loses coverage, users can tap into other providers for emergency calls.

However, only Cooktown and Weipa have alternative options.

Even then, if the only fibre optic cable is damaged, it shuts down all networks.

Cape York police Inspector Dave Rutherford said it was not an ideal situation.

“We ask people to call Triple Zero but when they can’t it does present some danger,” he said.

“You’d hate to have a life-or-death emergency and not be able to call for help.”

Rachel Cliffe, Telstra’s northern Queensland general manager, said the repairs were made as soon as practically possible.

“We couldn’t get there on Saturday because it wasn’t safe to fly (in a helicopter),” she said.

“We left first thing on Sunday morning and took just about every part possible to be on the safe side.

“We even slung some fuel, just in case the generator had run out.

“The network was back up and running by 9.25am.”

Bevan Duke’s Weipa business, Heartland Helicopters, is one of the big winners from Telstra’s regular outages in Cape York.

However, when questioned by Cape York Weekly about Telstra’s inability to cope during the wet season, Ms Cliffe disagreed with the statement.

This is despite the fact that for every wet season in the past decade, Telstra has had multiple major outages across the region.

“We’ve done some things in our network to try and improve resilience,” Ms Cliffe said.

“The last thing we want are disruptions.

“We’ve recently teamed up with OneWeb to look at using low-orbit satellites, similar to Starlink, to see what we can do to improve our network resilience.”

Ms Cliffe said one issue facing Telstra was that Cape York and the Torres Strait had only one fibre optic cable.

It means that an outage at Coen can create a domino effect across the region.

“We’d love to have a diverse fibre optic connection … that would need significant funding from the state and federal governments,” Ms Cliffe said.

However, she admitted that Telstra had not put forward a submission for an additional fibre optic cable to be commissioned.

The cost of running a second fibre optic cable in Cape York would likely cost more than $100 million.

Running an underwater cable from Gove in the Northern Territory could be another option.

“The federal government is aware of the need for diversification of the network in Cape York,” Ms Cliffe said.

“We recently connected the fibre from Burketown to Normanton, which has created a ‘ring of resilience’ for those in the North West.

“It means that when there is an outage along that ring, we can divert the connection from either Cairns or Townsville, depending on where the outage is.

“We’re exploring the fibre options around that Normanton connection.

“A submarine connection is also being considered but the cost is quite significant.”

Telstra said ensuring that Australians had the ability to make emergency calls was a priority.

“We are exploring satellite-to-handset connectivity to allow Triple Zero calls when the network goes down and we’re hoping to have that running by 2025,” Ms Cliffe said.

That feature already exists in the latest iPhone models.

In the meantime, Cape York residents will cross their fingers and hope for no more outages during the wet season.

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