Telco networks robust in Christchurch earthquake

Telecom makes 300 payphones available free of charge

Fixed line and cellphone networks appear to have stood up well in the face of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch at around 4.35am yesterday.

Chorus spokesperson Robin Kelly says telephone exchanges suffered only minor damage, and that the biggest issue appears to be getting power supply to roadside cabinets and cellsites.

“The network stood up very well, quite robust given it was 7.1 on the Richter scale. All our exchanges are operating normally,” he told Computerworld.

“We had our teams on the ground scrambling very quickly to make sure that the right people and resources were in place to ensure things stabilised as quickly as they could.”

He points out that Radio New Zealand was interviewing a wide range of witnesses at 7am – just two and half hours after the quake struck – and they were doing so on the fixed line network.

As at Sunday afternoon a few dozen cabinets remained out of service, with around 100 – 200 customers connected to each cabinet. Chorus has arranged for additional generators and fuel to be brought into the Canterbury area to the affected cabinets, which Kelly says are located in “pockets”.

In the Selwyn District, the council and local residents have connected their own generators to the side of the cabinets to ensure communications for their communities.

“If it’s a power issue for the cabinets we can plug in generators pretty quickly,” Kelly says. “The issue is it may not be a power issue, it could be a cable fault with all the movement in the ground – in some instances the ground moved two metres.”

Telecom has made around 300 payphones in the Christchurch area free for local, national and mobile calls. Telecom retail CEO Alan Gourdie says that although the network is “holding up well”, there are still many people unable to use their phones.

“We know many people in Christchurch will be facing ongoing disruption and it’s important they are able to stay in touch with the people who matter to them.”

Cellphone networks experienced a surge in traffic at around 5am just after the earthquake struck, with Telecom reporting more than double the normal traffic

Telecom spokesperson Mark Watts says both XT and CDMA networks coped with the unexpected traffic. Of the 140 Telecom cellsites in the Canterbury region, about two to three dozen cellsites went out of operation. “The root cause was the disruption to electricity supplies.”

Throughout Saturday all three cellphone networks – Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees – were urging customers to limit their cellphone calls to text and voice calls as pxt and video used up more power to the cellsites.

Yesterday 2degrees chief executive Eric Hertz flew down to Christchurch to ensure the 25 2degrees staff were alright. (He may have been mindful of the Haiti earthquake, in which 2degrees’s majority shareholder Trilogy owns a mobile network, and which suffered extensive damage in its earthquake earlier this year).

2degrees spokesperson Bryony Hilless told Computerworld that despite five cellsites still down on Sunday afternoon, 2degrees customers were able to make phone calls and send texts wherever they were located in the city.

Since the earthquake struck operators have kept their customers informed about their networks via social media website Twitter. New Zealand Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews told Computerworld: “The response from Telecom and Vodafone especially, as well as Chris Quin (Gen-I CEO) specifically, has been outstanding.”

UPDATE: At 5.30pm Vodafone spokesperson Paul Brislen provided the following update to Computerworld: "The network team has been working round the clock with Downers to keep the network up and I believe we are fully operational albeit with some sites running on batteries and generators."

In addition, 2degrees spokesperson Bryony Hilless updated Computerworld: "All sites on air, everything fully operational.

No issues, nothing to report."

UPDATE II: At 11.30am on Monday 6 September: TelstraClear spokesperson David Courtney reports that around 800 customers (down from 2000) on the telco's HSC cable are still without broadband or cable TV service. He says the company is assessing damage to the cable but the primary reason for the outage is lack of mains power.

TelstraClear has 80 cabinets in the Christchurch area, and they all lost mains power immediately after the earthquake, but voice services were maintained because back-up battery power kept the cabinets running. By Saturday night 10 cabinets were without mains power and had generators. Currently only three cabinets are running on generators.

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