Bushfires ravage Aussie telecom networks

Australian carriers are battling to restore their networks after they thousands of lines were put out of action by the devastating bushfires.

Authorities say 173 people have died in the bushfires in Victoria, making it the country's worst peacetime disaster.

Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo said the fires had caused "substantial damage" to exchanges, mobile base stations and cabling. He said Telstra had lost communications to five exchanges and estimated that 18 base stations were down, disabling "thousands of phone lines and broadband internet connections."

Up to 200 Telstra employees are working to repair the damage and restore services in Victoria, as well as flood-ravaged Queensland in northern Australia. Staff were working closely with emergency service crews to ensure they retain connectivity, Telstra said.

Rival Optus has restored a number of mobile sites, but 16 Victorian sites were still down, and other sites are affected by power loss. The full extent of the damage is yet to be determined, an Optus spokesperson told telecomasia.net.

A number of smaller ISPs who use the bigger players' infrastructure have also been affected by the outages. Simon Hackett, managing director of Internode, told telecomasia.net that outside the capital city of Melbourne it leases all its connectivity from both Telstra and Optus.

Internode is experiencing network disruption, but no more than Telstra and Optus, he said. Repairing the damage is "very much in [their] hands," he said.

Meanwhile, Telstra has pledged A$500,000 ($341,550) to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal, and said it will match personal contributions by its employees dollar for dollar up to A$250,000.

The influx of donations to bushfire victims crashed the Red Cross site, forcing the organization to increase its available bandwidth tenfold. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has warned of a likely influx of scam emails purporting to be collecting money for bushfire victims.

A fire map updated in real time by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) has also been overloaded by an influx of traffic. The CFA has pleaded for people not to visit the site unless there is a specific need. Google has replicated the data to Google Maps. 

Both Telstra and Optus are also offering free or discounted calls to affected customers. Optus has pledged to provide free mobiles prepaid with A$1,000 of value to customers who have had their fixed or mobile service disrupted. Telstra is offering mobile calls at fixed line rates and free call diversion.