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Network failures ‘avoidable’

July 7th 2005

Network failures ‘avoidable’

A Christchurch engineering consultant says the recent major disruption to Telecom’s telecommunications network could have been prevented.

Trevor Lord, of the Christchurch-based firm LORD Civil says the prime contributing cause of the fibre optic cable outage to the telecommunications infrastructure was “avoidable”, given the implementation of a proposed new quality-based programme to increase the level of best practice in underground utility detection.

The programme has been developed and promoted throughout the past nine months by LORD Civil, a civil engineering consulting company after extensively researching the international levels of best practice relating to this issue and concluding that significant improvement was possible with relatively modest refinements to technique and technologies employed.

Telecom suffered two fibre outages on June 20 that caused widespread disruptions to services including mobile and internet service and data services including EFT-POS were restored mid-afternoon.
In the first incident, there was physical damage from natural causes to fibre on a bridge in the Rimutaka area. Services through that fibre were able to be routed through different parts of the network, but in a second incident in south Taranaki a post-hole digger damaged a fibre later in the morning. Telecom said the outage was caused by “an unfortunate coincidence of damage to the network in two places”. Telecom has said it “regrets” the inconvenience to customers caused by the disruptions.

However, Trevor Lord is adamant that events such as the construction-related incident above should not have happened in the first place. These situations, and similar such occurrences that are commonplace but perhaps less dramatic in their outcome, would have been avoided, he says, had the stakeholders involved - had the will to mandate an appropriate level of best practice systems in place, and had New Zealand’s infrastructure managers aimed for damage prevention rather than consequent repair.
“At the time of the Telecom outage, Mr George Hooper of the Centre for Advanced Engineering suggested that the country should plan for the contingency of infrastructure failures as a result of systems failures or natural disasters,” says Mr Lord.

“Whilst this is a laudable aim, by far the greatest risk to the entire buried infrastructure asset base internationally is from consequential damage from excavation or civil engineering activity and it is there that the major thrust of preventative strategic effort must first be levied. It is very important to understand that almost all such damage is quite preventable, given the simple will of the infrastructure stakeholders to achieve this outcome in tandem with suitable guiding practices.

“While New Zealand lags significantly behind the level and uniformity of 'best practice' seen in most developed countries, the rate of preventable damage in such countries is generally conceded to be higher than acceptable as a result of the quality of effort expended to avoid the outcome,” he says.

“The proposals put forward by our firm, while primarily focused on Australia and New Zealand, are written with the intended scope of promoting an international improvement in best practice.”

Trevor Lord says New Zealand has no mandated procedures to avoid continued recurrences of the events of June 20. “And this simply is unacceptable, given that the solution to the problem is available now and is being implemented to great effect in a few regions of New Zealand.

“As demonstrated last month, stakeholders will no longer tolerate such incidents regardless of the scale - the direct and indirect costs of which are typically much higher than widely appreciated. Whereas even minor damage to buried assets can result in a true cost of some $10,000 to the contractor who initiates the incident, damage such as that seen on June 20 is well known to result, even in Australasia, in six figure claims against the contractor.”

Mr Lord says parallel health and safety issues, general disruption to the normal flow of society, undue burdening of emergency services, and possible longer-term secondary damage in such cases are all of major concern and increasing focus to the country.

“Mr Hooper does make the point clearly that the interdependence of the buried infrastructure can result in spectacularly-compounded effects from infrastructure damage but, while the various infrastructure owners do undertake all practicable steps to implement design initiatives to minimise the outcome of damage, the outcomes are not always containable to idealised levels.

“Quite clearly, the point to make most strongly here is that prevention, via better work practices, is far better and more readily achieved than the cure - whether the latter be an added design standpoint or the expensive implementation of new additional technology in the infrastructure to attempt to minimise the consequences from such effects.

We have the processes on the table, the proven approaches to achieve this outcome, widespread support in principle from various and diverse industry segments in both Australia and New Zealand, and we lack only the formalised will of the NZ infrastructure and construction Industry to embrace and implement the procedures proposed.”

Trevor Lord says “given suitable will” a wide-spread implementation of the LORD Civil proposals is possible by the end of this year, with formal training qualifications, training providers, and draft systems being on standby for that eventuality.

Biography: Trevor Lord directs a Christchurch-based company which provides geophysical, utility detection and temporary traffic control support and solutions.

He has worked within the power and electrical industries in New Zealand and Australia for some 30 years in a variety of roles, adding a civil engineering brief during the past 8 years.

ENDS

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