The COVID-19 pandemic has been the ultimate stress test, bringing into sharp relief the strengths and weaknesses of Australian society, connectivity, government, the economy and social and physical infrastructure.
One aspect of Australian life that has received particular attention is the national telecommunications system. The pandemic revealed some surprising vulnerabilities.
Until now, while some may have griped about not being able to get a mobile signal or the internet dropping out or being too slow, unreliable connectivity has been something most have been prepared to shrug off. But that may have changed with COVID-19, with second-best telecommunications simply no longer acceptable.
A single phone call could save a life in a rural community; a reliable mobile service enables the elderly and infirm to keep in touch with family; small business owners struggling with plummeting sales cannot afford for their website to be inaccessible.
“Reliable connectivity is essential in business and at home,” says Samantha Clifton, the general manager of Southport, Queensland-based Powertec Telecommunications.
“Rectifying the problem has not always been the highest priority but that changed with the pandemic. When people had to start working from home, what used to be annoying problems with internet speed or mobile-phone connectivity became unacceptable failures that had to be fixed. The need for better connectivity has never before been so critical.”
Australians working and learning from home have caused a spike in internet demand of up to 80 per cent, according to a Monash University report.
Even the most sceptical mobile-phone customers would have been surprised at how fragile Australia’s mobile phone network proved under pressure.
In March, as the lockdown became the new temporary reality, Telstra reported that the network was overloaded as Australians bombarded government agencies for information.
Some calls went to a recorded message announcing that the mobile network was too congested, other calls simply dropped out before a connection could be made.
A Telstra spokesman explained that call volumes on the mobile network had increased by 50 per cent in some cases “due to people working from home and the kids being home from school”.
Also, the number of calls made to government agencies increased by up to 20 times the usual call volume.
The Telstra spokesman explained: ‘‘The network is being congested by the sheer number of calls. It’s like a highway with two lanes but you have traffic that needs five lanes.’’
Telstra and other telcos moved quickly to fast- track upgrades on interconnection points and better manage the higher call volumes.
But what happens when connectivity breakdowns are not due to unexpected surges in demand but are simply the norm?
Powertec specialises in fixing those connectivity problems. Formed in 1995, beginning as a sole-trader business on the Gold Coast, Powertec now has offices Australia-wide and in New Zealand.
Powertec’s Samantha Clifton says connectivity is “fast becoming the new currency in light of the COVID-19 pandemic”. “Powertec wireless communication products and installation services aim to make a difference in people’s lives and ensure that they can communicate and be connected no matter where they are,” she says.
Powertec has 90,000 installations in Australia and New Zealand including large companies, government departments, small to medium-sized businesses, body corporates, farms, aged-care facilities, hospitals and individual consumers.
Commercial installations include in-building coverage, offices, police and fire stations, and providing indoor and outdoor wireless signals using powerful Wi-Fi access points.
“We specialise in the hard-to-connect areas such as basements, car parks, warehouses and farms, where farmers rely on sensors and the Internet of Things to monitor fences, dams and animal movements.
Powertec is frequently called on to address poor mobile phone coverage in the workplace, at home or on the road. Clients include Norco’s Gold Coast factory, a Symbion warehouse in NSW and the Glenbrook Residential Aged Care facility in Nambour, Queensland.
An aged-care provider in Victoria was experiencing intermittent mobile network coverage in its newly built 60-room aged care facility. Due to the construction of the building incorporating two floors below ground and four floors above, unreliable mobile connectivity became an immediate issue that posed a risk to patient safety and staff operations. Powertec’s multi-carrier solution ensured reliable mobile phone coverage on all six floors and to each room.
The introduction of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) in Australia has created a greater need for failover phone systems. In case of an emergency power failure, SIP (the non-copper communications installed as part of the NBN rollout) is less reliable than the previous copper-based ISDN service.
A Queensland hospital concerned about the unreliability of its connectivity installed a Powertec failover phone system. As a result, workplace health and safety has been dramatically improved and the hospital has continuous voice service.
Clifton believes that as a result of COVID-19, and the importance of connectivity underlined by the lockdown experience, more businesses will move to address connectivity issues.
“I think we will see connectivity and fail-over plans work their way up the priority list,” she says.
Original article by Australian Financial Review, published Friday, 29 May 2020 www.afr.com