Griffin on Tech: Gabrielle’s telecoms lessons and the limits of DIY innovation

When Cyclone Gabrielle tore through the North Island in February there was intense scrutiny of the telecoms providers as they scrambled to reconnect cell towers and fibre cables.

Without communications, those in affected areas couldn’t contact emergency services, friends and family. Retailers in Gisborne couldn’t process Eftpos payments for much needed supplies. Confusion and disorganisation ensued.

While the telcos worked as quickly as possible to restore connectivity, leaning on Starlink satellite units in some cases to do so, the whole episode exposed weaknesses in the resilience of our telecoms networks – particularly around how they are powered in the wake of an emergency.

But it appears the telcos were working against another force – bureaucracy. Reports by the Telecommunications Carriers Forum released to RNZ under the Official Information Act suggest that important equipment for repairing telecoms infrastructure was offloaded from aircraft and replaced with other equipment on flights into affected areas.

That boat has sailed

The need to urgently get equipment and technicians to key telecoms sites  “was not properly understood by the people coordinating the emergency response, nor was it built into the framework for dealing with emergencies,” the report from the TCF, which represents key telecoms providers, noted.

The TCF outlines numerous incidents that threw spanners in the works – their technicians not being granted access to affected regions, a frigate leaving earlier than advised, leaving mobile cell sites on wheels behind, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) unable to provide a fuel plan so the telcos could plan for keeping generators running.

What a mess. It needs to be fixed before the next big storm hits. NEMA is apparently working on its own review, so will hopefully have taken onboard the TCF’s feedback so that facilitating restoration of communications can be prioritised in future.

But there’s a bigger discussion to be had about redundancy. It’s not built into the fixed line or and mobile networks, with the exception, according to RNZ, of a requirement that outages on the core fibre links that Chorus maintains can’t affect more than 4,000 connections at a time. If something breaks, the telcos dispatch technicians to fix it. That, by and large, works well. But more frequent extreme weather events could see more frequent and disruptive outages. 

The telecoms industry obviously doesn’t want to pay for a massive redundancy upgrade, but the reports suggest it is willing to meet the Government half-way on some resilience meaures including:

Quick fixes?

  • To “co-invest” with government on back-up supply for crucial communications hubs, as well as duplicate fibre links in low population areas.
  • – Lay additional fibre-optic cables on secondary roads into major centres using Transpower pylons for cables, rather than bridges, which were taken out in the storm floods.
  • Have better engineering standards for river crossings.

And here’s an ambitious idea which the TCF acknowledges would be “very high cost”.

  • Lay undersea fibre cables around the coast to avoid linkages along bridges and roads breaking.

These are all good suggestions and with the telecoms industry seemingly willing to “co-invest” to make them happen, its time for the Government to work with it to formulate a plan of attack – and quickly.

DIY innovation has its limits

So the Titan submersible appeared to have imploded. The world waited with bated breath for a miraculous rescue, but the reality is that the five crew members died days ago, when communication with the sub was lost. At least it was quick.

Stockton Rush, OceanGate’s chief executive an founder died in the titanium capsule he helped design. A lot has been made about OceanGate’s unconventional approach to developing its technology, and the photo of Stockton holding the wireless game controller used to steer the sub has become a meme.

Rush reminds me a bit of Glenn Martin, the highly driven and ingenious Kiwi creator of the Martin Jetpack who worked for 25 years on prototypes of a jetpack that could take a person to hard-to-reach places. He raised a lot of money and produced some innovative technology, but as commercialisation efforts ramped up, it was quickly judged to be impractical. It looked like a flying death trap too, even if it had good safety measures if something went wrong.

The Titan submersible was experimental, so didn’t comply with industry standards for underwater vehicles. Rush was working on the bleeding edge of innovation. But that clearly has its risks, and five people have died due to his overconfidence and ambition. It’s a sobering reminder of the fine line in emerging technology between being innovation and being irresponsibie.

Source: ITP New Zealand Tech Blog

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