• Tony Bosworth

Telstra says Bilpin comms tower fit for purpose - BRAG says decision puts region at risk again

Telstra says a 14-hour battery back-up for the communications tower at Bilpin put in place after the 2019-20 bushfire emergency is adequate to protect the power supply during a bushfire emergency, and there are no plans for further upgrades to the tower.

But the Bilpin Region Advancement Group (BRAG) who have been lobbying hard for a back-up generator, say they are far from happy with Telstra's response and that the lack of generator once more puts the area at risk during a bushfire emergency.

After the 2019-20 bushfires - which saw homes and businesses in Bilpin burn to the ground and people fleeing for their lives, often without any access to triple-zero or SMS messaging due to power cuts which disabled the comms tower - Bilpin Region Advancement Group (BRAG) put the call out to make the tower power-cut proof.

Following a strongly-worded letter from BRAG a week ago to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher after Bilpin communications tower was not one of 467 tower battery back-up upgrades listed for government funding, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack stepped in and immediately put Bilpin on the register available to bidders, including Telstra.

The Deputy PM told the Post last week this meant Bilpin residents should call Telstra to get them to bid for a share of the government money for the work.

BRAG are asking for a generator – estimated to cost around $10,000 to buy and install – so that power cuts don’t cut off communications in the area.

But Telstra told the Post today they fitted a 14-hour battery back-up over last January and February after the bushfires, and they believe that will do the job.

Telstra say they have no plans for further upgrades to the tower.

“The recent work undertaken to increase our battery back-up at our Bilpin base station will provide sufficient capacity to maintain services in the event of A/C failure and currently we do not have plans for a permanent on-site generator,” Telstra’s spokesperson told us.

“Importantly, in the event of prolonged outages Telstra have teams of Power Technicians across key locations ready to deploy emergency power via generators, if required and when safe to do so.”

But Penny McKinlay, BRAG's President, said the Telstra decision was not acceptable.

"By definition, if we have been without power for 14 hours, it won’t be safe for Telstra staff to come here. If we have no power, we need Endeavour Energy staff here first, and their needs have to be considered too. They did a great job last summer.

"Telstra are covering themselves by admitting they can only solve the problem if it is safe to do so. We fully respect that they cannot endanger their staff, but it does leave hundreds of us up here in danger!

"That's the crux of the matter. In a time of crisis, we cannot expect staff from anywhere to be able to come and assist. Hence the need for a better solution - a back-up generator."

Macquarie MP Susan Templeman said she completely supported BRAG's comments.

"I was pleased when Telstra responded to community concerns and upgraded the batteries and battery life for the Bilpin tower previously," Ms Templeman said.

"Nevertheless, the Bilpin area has a history of storms and fires, which in the past has resulted in the infrastructure being offline for significantly longer than 14 hours.

"My question to Telstra and the government is, what guarantees will they make to repair infrastructure within 14 hours so mobile services are maintained and community safety is protected? "Otherwise, put in a better battery back-up system that meets the area's needs. "The electricity network in the Hawkesbury has a history of fragility during storm and fire events and residents need the reassurance that they will at least be able to make a mobile call during disasters. "Telstra and telecommunication companies should have adequate staff, trained to repair their assets under disaster conditions."

We asked Telstra - given they were happy with the power situation at the tower – if they would bid for any enhancements under Stage 2 of the Mobile Network Hardening Program which has $18m of government money available to “fund mobile carriers to enhance the resilience of their mobile networks in regional and remote Australia”.

Telstra’s spokesman told us: “With respect to Federal government funds toward various network programs, Telstra are active supporters of such initiatives and will review areas for consideration nationally based on needs and within the guidelines of the various funding programs.”

Telstra could bid for funds for an on-site generator, if they wanted to, given the Bilpin tower is now on the Stage 2 government list.

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