Telcos fight to keep phone services operating [telecom]

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Telcos fight to keep phone services operating Lucy Battersby January 13, 2011

HELICOPTERS and sandbags are being used to keep generators running and underground networks dry as telephone operators scramble to maintain services and minimise damage in Queensland's flooded areas.

But mobile phone coverage will drop out where electricity has been cut if technicians cannot access facilities to replace back-up batteries. Networks are also struggling to cope with the volume of communication.

Carriers say it is too early to calculate the cost of repairs, but it is likely to run into tens of millions of dollars.

Telstra shares were down 1¢ at $2.85 yesterday and shares in Optus parent SingTel rose 2¢ to $2.42.

Optus and Telstra are not charging to divert calls from customers' fixed-line phones to their mobiles. Optus will deliver 1500 handsets with $1000 credit to the Red Cross and Telstra will hand out 200 handsets and thousands of phone cards through Anglicare, on top of free payphones in evacuation centres.

Telstra and Optus staff yesterday used helicopters to deliver diesel generators to regional facilities unreachable by road, while Vodafone staff swiftly sandbagged a transmission tower threatened by floodwaters in Brisbane's east.

''Tens of thousands of people are without services,'' a Telstra spokeswoman said, adding that fault reports had quadrupled in Queensland. ''As power is restored and access enabled to exchanges and affected properties, this should come down substantially. There will likely be significant delays because of the sheer volume [of problems].''

An extra 130 technical staff have been sent to the state to help reconnect services once waters recede.

Telstra hitched a ride on one of the Defence Force's Black Hawk helicopters to deliver a generator to Theodore, 550 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, and has tried to protect exchanges with sandbags and plastic coverings.

The Bribie Island exchange was knocked out by lightning on Tuesday night, but services were restored yesterday. Only three Telstra exchanges were without power yesterday afternoon, the spokeswoman said.

Fixed broadband and pay television services are also affected.

Optus's director of fixed engineering, Noel Jarrett, said workers were trying to seal pits and ducts to prevent water entering the underground network. About 40 Optus mobile towers were at risk of losing power, he said.

Vodafone restored its Brisbane services within hours on Tuesday, while Australia Post said it was unable to deliver mail to many affected regions.

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David Clayton
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