National broadband disaster


Strowger pre-selection

The NBN, an example of degraded societal resilience?

Back in the day the old Strowger telephone exchanges were incredibly tough electro-mechanical beasts, and great fun to play with as well. As an example of their toughness there’s the tale of how during the Chilean ‘big one’ a Strowger unit was buried in the rubble of it’s exchange building but kept happily clunking away for a couple of days until the battery wore down. Early Australian exchanges were Strowger’s, my father actually worked on them, and to power their DC lines they used to run huge battery pairs that alternated between service and charging. That built in brute strength redundancy also minimised the effect of unreliable mains power on network services, remember back in the day power wasn’t that reliable. Fast forward to 1989 when we had the Newcastle (NSW) earthquake and lo our local exchange only stayed up for a couple of hours until it’s batteries died.

With the rollout of the Australian National Broadband Network you’d think that battery backup for equipment (in the home) would be mandatory…but alas no, it’s down to the home owner to elect to instal an UPS with their in house NBN unit. Which wouldn’t matter so much except that we now run our national telephone system through the NBN. So the next major storm, out goes your power and with no battery backup out goes your telephone as well, regardless of what’s happening at the exchange, sorry the NBN ‘node’. Of course that’s fine as long as you have a mobile phone, it’s charged, and your provider’s local cell station has a backup power supply. All that assuming you have a mobile phone… My eighty year old mother does not.

Given that resilience is not high on the agenda of governments, companies, or consumers, don’t expect the unnecessary fat required for resilient behaviour to be there when you need it. Nor is there much, if any, thinking about the network of networks that we are busily creating or the new ways in which they can fail. Unfortunately for these lean systems when you optimise for normal conditions you end up not coping with the abnormal very well, yet more unfortunately with climate change pumping up the weather that abnormal is rapidly becoming the new normal. Very soon now we’re going to see just how well the NBN holds up in a crisis, hopefully (of course we shouldn’t have to hope) we haven’t built ourselves a national single point of failure.