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Cell network
Cellphone networks around the country went down thanks to Cyclone Gabrielle. (Image: Getty / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

BusinessFebruary 16, 2023

Why did New Zealand’s cellphone network fail so fast?

Cell network
Cellphone networks around the country went down thanks to Cyclone Gabrielle. (Image: Getty / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

Cyclone Gabrielle forced cellphone networks to their knees. What needs to change to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

When Cyclone Gabrielle arrived in Piha on Sunday night, slips and floods quickly decimated homes in the beachside community. Power supplies to the 1000-odd residents who call the West Auckland suburb home went out. All forms of telecommunications quickly followed. The only road in and out was damaged by slips, so residents were instantly stranded. 

With no internet or cellphone networks operating, they couldn’t contact anyone. “Our fire department, their radios are down,” Jenene Crossan told The Spinoff two days after the disaster. “They can’t even get messages out. We’ve seen none of the news coverage. We have no idea what’s happened to the rest of the country … That’s how bad the comms issue is. The comms issue is appalling.”

Crossan didn’t use her own phone for that conversation. She couldn’t – she had no reception. Instead, she used one supplied by a group of Spanish and German tourists. Instead of a relaxing holiday, they found themselves thrust into the middle of an emergency. One had purchased a pre-pay 2Degees sim card to use during the trip. From Piha’s Surf Club, it offered an essential service – the only line out that many Piha residents had. It was a bandaid when a tourniquet was needed.

Around the country, communications networks have failed fast in the face of Cyclone Gabrielle. In the Far North, the 111 emergency number was reportedly down, along with Eftpos and banking services. In Tairāwhiti, Civil Defence told residents: “There is no 111 capability – if you have an emergency please go to the police or fire stations.” Gisborne, Coromandel, the West Coast and Wairoa are all struggling with major communication issues.

Repairs are in full flight. In Gisborne, Vodafone chartered planes and hired helicopters to install satellite uplinks after fibre cables were cut in slips. At one point, it had 70 sites down around the country and had deployed every single member of its emergency response team. Spark offered customers free data, a worthless gesture for many when cellular networks were down. Out at Gisborne airport, cellular services resumed thanks to a “mobile solution” installed on the top of a scissor lift. 

 

The affects of downed communications lines on people in disaster zones is clear: it’s massively stressful. Unable to contact loved ones, worried family members have taken to social media hoping to find them. “Lost contact with my son since 12.30,” one distraught mum wrote on Facebook. “I am still missing a team member in Gisborne,” wrote someone on Twitter

But with no cellular services, no one in affected areas can reply. This could last for weeks. Gisborne residents have been told to by Transpower to prepare for power lines to be down for “days to weeks, rather than hours”. That will affect how quickly internet and cell coverage comes back online. The Science Media Centre posted guidelines on how to conserve data on stretched networks: stick to voice calls or text message, don’t use video chat services, and try and find your nearest cell tower “ideally within direct view of the cell site”.

The question on Crossan’s mind, and for the tens of thousands of people affected by the cyclone, stuck in regions full of cyclone damage and destruction, isolated with no cellphone service and unable to alert loved ones or friends, is an obvious one. Why did our networks fail so fast? And what needs to be done to prevent this from happening again?

“Northland’s coming back online,” says Paul Brislen. “I’ve got less concerns about Northland today. Auckland and across our region it’s pretty good. The west coast, access is still a problem, you’ve still got slips occurring, and I think we might be getting more rain, so that’ll delay things. Coromandel is much the same.”

Brislen, New Zealand Telecommunications Forum’s CEO, has just emerged from a Thursday morning briefing about the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. He’s spearheading communications out of all the major telecommunications companies so, as one puts it to me, “we have clear and concise messaging in a crisis”. The biggest problem Brislen’s dealing with right now? Gisborne. “Gisborne in particular is cut off from the rest of the world in terms of telecommunications,” he says.

The issue underpinning all of this, says Brislen, is power supply. Floods and slips caused by Cyclone Gabrielle have damaged networks around the North Island. In turn, that affects cellular networks. Cellphone towers are connected to the power grid. If the power supply goes down, so do cellular services. “Most of the cell phone network in particular is undamaged,” says Brislen. “It’s largely just disconnected. So as soon as the power comes back up, then we’ve got cell phone coverage, and it all flows from there … the biggest problem we’ve got is power.”

Brislen says this repeatedly. “This is not a telco emergency. This is a power supply emergency,” he says. “We just do not have the the power supply that you would expect at any given time.” He adds: “Now that’s not to throw the power sector under the bus. Nobody was really prepared for the extent to the actual physical extent of this storm … There’s an awful lot that we’ll have to support the power sector in doing.”

Taradale
Redcliffe Bridge is closed off as debris piles up along the Tutaekuri River in the suburb of Taradale. Photo: Getty

Crossan told The Spinoff that generators were required to help Piha get cellular services up and running. This isn’t a solution, says Brislen. “We’ve got 1,000 cellphone towers per network. So that’s 3,000 generators. The smallest generators need refueling every seven hours. That’s an awful lot of diesel. I’m not sure that the environment really wants us pumping that much diesel.” How about batteries? “The batteries in the towers only run for four to eight hours, because they’re really designed just to take the edge off if there are local issues,” he says. “They’re not designed for this kind of scale whatsoever.”

It is, says Brislen, a little too soon to work out how they’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen next time. “That’s a conversation to have next week,” he says. “I’ll be coming back after this and saying, ‘OK, what can we do to mitigate some of this in the future?'” But then he offers his own answer to that question. “The short answer is: There’s not much we can do.” When The Spinoff pushes Brislen for another solution, he replies: “Like fairy dust?”

That’s going to be hard to hear for those, like Crossan and the thousands displaced in Gisborne, who can’t get their phones to work in a crisis. They’re dependent on them, now more than ever. “We need fresh food and we need 100 2Degrees sim cards,” Crossan told The Spinoff on Wednesday. “Then we can get everybody feeling less isolated than they are right now.”

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