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Diesel power and batteries in the bush feature at mobile blackspot sites

Australia’s Department of Communications has revealed that one telco is using diesel generators to provide power for base stations under the federal government’s mobile blackspots program, while another is storing its backup batteries “out in the environment” rather than in a shed where they belong.

“One of the carriers has about 40 base stations on the blackspot program where they are using diesel generators and have been for a long time,” Assistant Secretary of Regional Deployment for the Department of Communications Lachlann Paterson told Senate Estimates this week.

“It’s not ideal, but we’ve tried to focus on getting those base stations to deliver a service, while we wait for the mains power to get connected.”

Telstra told ZDNet that it is using such generators to power “a small number” of its sites “in the interim” while they await mains power as part of a focus to provide mobile coverage to regional areas as soon as possible.

“Telstra understands how important mobile coverage is for all Australians, and is building more than 650 base stations under the federal government’s mobile blackspots program,” the incumbent telco told ZDNet.

ZDNet understands that only a handful of Optus’ base stations are running on generators, with the telco also making use of solar power and batteries depending on location, while Vodafone confirmed to ZDNet that all of its mobile blackspot sites have battery back-up power rather than diesel generators.

Optus had last month said the government would be funding the cost of fitting each new blackspot site under round three of the mobile blackspots program with 12-hour battery backup capabilities for use in the event of a power outage.

According to Paterson, this is costing an additional AU$1 million for the government. A minimum of three hours’ backup power is standard, he said, with one carrier saying it could provide eight hours and the department then covering the cost to reach 12 hours.

“Fundamentally, you are paying for the cost of providing auxiliary power,” he told Senate Estimates.

“The carriers all do auxiliary power for these purposes through batteries — there’s no point having a generator if you’ve got a fire in the area and you can’t get something in there to start the generator — so they all went with the battery option.

“Basically, you are paying for the batteries, you’re paying for the batteries themselves which need to be replaced every 18 months or so, you’ve got all the extra cabling.”

With a majority of mobile blackspot sites therefore using batteries for backup power, Paterson said the telcos all “do it slightly differently”, with Telstra storing its backup batteries within a shed to protect them from the environment.

As this generates a lot of heat, the department is also required to fund the shed’s air conditioning, Paterson said.

“That’s the Telstra solution,” he said.

“Other carriers will go: ‘Well, we are not going to have the cost of air conditioning and a shed, so our costs are down’, but maybe the batteries have a shorter life because they are out in the environment.”

Vodafone confirmed to ZDNet that like Telstra, it stores its batteries inside sheds and not out in the environment.

Optus did not provide a response on whether it partakes in free-range battery storage by the time of publication.

The government had last month revealed which telcos will be taking a slice of the AU$60 million funding under round three of the mobile blackspots program, with Telstra being designated 89 locations across the nation, Optus 12, and Vodafone Australia one.

Optus is building 114 new mobile sites under round two of the Australian government’s mobile blackspots program while Telstra is responsible for 148, down from the 429 it was allocated under round one.

Vodafone Australia will build out just four mobile base stations under round two after being responsible for 70 under round one.

The government’s 2018-19 federal Budget did not set aside any additional funding for the mobile blackspots program, despite calls for this from the opposition Labor party.

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