Telco networks under pressure following New Zealand earthquake

Photo credit: REUTERS/Mark Baker/Pool

How Telecom, TelstraClear, Vodafone and 2degrees have fared in Christchurch

Recovery workers inspect the fallen spire of the Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch March 2, 2011. New Zealand came to a standstill on Tuesday as people marked the moment a deadly earthquake shattered the country's second-biggest city Christchurch a week ago, and the number of confirmed dead rose by one to 155.

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch at 12.51pm on Tuesday February 22 caused widespread disruption to telecommunication networks.

Telecom, TelstraClear, Vodafone and 2degrees have posted regular media updates -- Telecom sent its first update at 1.20pm last Tuesday -- most of which have been posted directly onto the Computerworld site. Here is a summary of what unfolded.

Following the earthquake priority for the operators was on ensuring their employees were safe. For Telecom, which has 1600 staff in Christchurch, it was not possible to account for all staff until two days after the earthquake struck.

Cellphone towers were seriously damaged, and massive power outages meant that cellsites and telephone cabinets immediately switched onto battery back up power. Calls to the emergency 111 contact centre -- which is located in Christchurch - were diverted to Telecom's contact centre in Wellington by 3.20pm on Tuesday. Christchurch customers were told to keep trying the service if they were having trouble connecting, as these calls were prioritised.

Meanwhile mobile customers around the country were asked via media releases, website updates and social networking sites to restrict calls and mobile data downloads, in order to ease the load on the networks. This request remained in place until 5pm on Friday. "We removed that message from the releases (on Friday afternoon), we weren't actively encouraging people to use the network but we were confident that the network was in a state that it would handle increased load (which it did)," says Vodafone spokesperson Matt East.

By the weekend the networks were stable however there continue to be localised issues and faults. TelstraClear says its network remained intact following the earthquake, although 70 of its 180 TelstraClear cabinets were affected by power outages and the telco estimates around 25,000 of its cable modem customers were without full services in the immediate aftermath.

"At present we estimate around 9000 customers are without full services -- again, localised damage will be the main cause," says TelstraClear spokesperson Diane Robinson.

Due to the power outages, Telecom has put into service around 60 generators (33 of which were flown into the city by the Air Force), Vodafone around 30 generators, TelstraClear about 40-50 generators and 2degrees 30 generators.

Telecom has deployed five COWs (cell sites on wheels) to boost mobile coverage. It has enabled free calling at 260 public phones in the Christchurch and to date over 40,000 calls have been made on these phones. In addition it has created three free WiFi spots in Telecom Riccarton Mall, Café Zero (Cashmere Rd), and the Westpac Centre (Addington).

Vodafone has deployed four COWS and plans to deploy a further two later this afternoon. It has also boosted coverage with five femtocells (mini cellsites) set up around welfare centres. Following the earthquake 55 cellsites were out of service, of which twelve were not operational on Monday.

Immediately following the earthquake 2degrees reported that 71 of 98 cellsites were immediately on back up battery, and three cellsites weren't carrying traffic, but by midday Thursday its network was up and running with 2G and 3G services. The telco has more than 25 staff in Christchurch and 15 engineers in Auckland working on network issues that have arisen as a result of the earthquake. It has postponed plans for a call centre in Christchurch as the building it had chosen to house it is located in the CBD. Director of corporate affairs Mat Bolland says the intention to open a new contact centre, and increase the retail presence (currently there is one 2degrees retail outlet), in Christchurch, hasn't changed.

Rivalry between network operators has been put aside. TelstraClear has loaned generators to Vodafone, and Vodafone and 2degrees have provided Christchurch Earthquake Operation centre staff with dual-SIM card mobile phones to aid the rescue and recovery effort.

Computerworld asked each of the telcos if they were satisfied with their response to the earthquake. Here's how they replied.


"I think a more appropriate word would be proud. Seeing the way our people in Christchurch and around the country have rallied to support each other and the people of Christchurch in every way we can. The ideas and efforts of individuals through to huge teams from across the company to provide everything from vital communications support for the emergency relief efforts through to the ability for people to connect with friends and loved ones over temporary phone and internet connections right down to offers of a place to stay or a car to use. It's been a case of thousands of people pulling together with the common purpose of doing anything we could think off to help, within a company that's used its resources to support that in any way possible," says spokesperson Katherine Murphy.


"We are, there are people on the ground down there that are working tirelessly getting things back online. The co-operation of emergency services, military, Civil Defence has been invaluable. We are very proud of the way staff have responded to the tragic events," says spokesperson Matt East.


"Overall we are very satisfied with the robustness of our network and continue to do all we can to support our customers with dedicated help lines," says spokesperson Diane Robinson.


"We've been thrilled that we've been able to provide the service to customers when they needed it, and we recognise that our people are working right around the clock right now. It's a little early to say this is over, there's a lot of work to be done to make sure things stay up. We've got people right now driving around the city constantly refuelling generators," says director of coporate affairs Mat Bolland.

This story, "Telco networks under pressure following New Zealand earthquake" was originally published by Computerworld New Zealand.

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