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When communications are critical and down-time is not an option

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When communications are critical and down-time is not an option

Monday, May 01, 2017

Ariel View of Lismore CBD and the sorrounding during floods

The recent floods in Queensland and northern NSW in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie placed great strains on community infrastructure. Whole electricity networks went down, and telecommunications systems were severely affected.  

The floods highlighted the need for robust telecommunications infrastructure, particularly in critical facilities such as hospitals. It has been proved once again that reliable data communications is essential to the delivery of health services to the community, especially when natural disasters hit.

Unfortunately, it is just at the times when these services are most needed that they are most likely to be compromised, making redundancy in modern communications networks all the more important.

Vertel delivers critical communications networks to NSW Health, connecting around 100 hospitals, community Health centres and ambulance stations in regional and remote areas of NSW. Hospitals within Local Health Districts (LHDs) are connected via Layer 2 Carrier Ethernet links to the centralised NSW Government data centres.

To ensure maximum uptime every hospital needs to have two connections for access and carrier diversity. The primary connection is usually a fibre circuit, with Vertel providing the secondary link based on microwave access technology. In some remote locations where fibre is not readily available, the Vertel microwave link is the primary link providing fibre-equivalent, Layer 2 Carrier Ethernet services delivered over Vertel’s own redundant MPLS core.

The heavy rains and flooding around Lismore region in late March and early April 2017 caused massive power outages across the region. Some areas were without power for days and when combined with the flooding, caused major disruptions to a number of carrier networks.

Vertel’s network ensured all eight hospitals in the Lismore region had minimal downtime. The microwave based Carrier Ethernet system ensured that data communications links remained operational, even when some terrestrial links from other carriers were cut.

Vertel’s links could operate even after a mains power failure, however the batteries used in this instance had a limited back-up life. Vertel’s philosophy is to deliver on its promises during moments of truth even if it means going above and beyond its SLA commitments. To ensure all the hospitals affected by the power outage would remain online, Vertel chartered a helicopter to deliver a generator to Parrots Nest, a high-site about 10 km south of Lismore, where our regional microwave POP (Point-of-Presence) is based.

We engaged local contractors to install a temporary helipad to enable us to land the helicopter, and we also arranged for the refuelling of the generator until mains power was restored. This ensured we could restore power as soon as possible, with minimal disruption to the NSW Health network in the area.

The conditions were extreme and the efforts of our team were outstanding, going the extra mile to support the retention of the critical network in the area at a difficult time for the local community. Vertel guarantees 99.95% availability to NSW eHealth. Despite the severe flooding and the problems with restoring power, this undertaking was not breached.

It was critical that the Lismore area hospitals were able to access centralised patient information and clinical applications from the NSW data centre in Sydney. Vertel’s efforts were exemplary and above and beyond the call of duty as recognised by NSW eHealth executives.

It is difficult to estimate the costs of telecommunications downtime, particularly when lives are at risk. But we do know the numbers for the 2012 fire at Telstra’s Warrnambool telephone exchange in southwest Victoria, that left 100,000 phone and internet users without service for three weeks and cost the region in excess of $1 million per day.

The Lismore floods, with the massive disruption to infrastructure they caused, highlight the need for redundancy in telecommunications networks. When both power and terrestrial data communications are affected, network redundancy that eliminates any single point of failure becomes an absolute imperative.

At the same time as the flooding is Lismore, we faced a similar problem in Queensland. Flooding in the Bowen Basin took out both power and data communications at the large Sonoma open cut coal mine near Collinsville, where Vertel also supplies a Carrier Ethernet capability. We didn’t need a helicopter at Sonoma, but we still needed to arrange for backup power to our facilities while the terrestrial networks were out of action.

The experiences of NSW eHealth and Sonoma Mines show the value of redundancy in communications networks, and the suitability of Carrier Ethernet over microwave as the technology to provide that redundancy. It is not just a question of an extra communications link, true redundancy means multiple access technologies and multiple carriers.

by Theo Belekas, Managing Director at Vertel