Critical infrastructure

The National  Infrastructure Unit has released its review of how things are going one year on from the launch of the government’s infrastructure plan and apparently everything in telecommunications is fine.

Much work has been achieved in terms of UFB and RBI says the report, and the government is making steady progress towards re-purposing the 700MHz spectrum for telco use.

One thing worries the writers of the report (and bear in mind that the NIU sits inside Treasury) and that’s whether or not the regulatory settings encourage investment.

To be frank, I’m less worried about that because we now (finally) have competition in large swathes of the telco market and that in itself is driving investment. The Commerce Commission’s review of the sector shows that, even before we consider the UFB spend of $1.5 billion from our pockets.

I have another issue that the report barely touches on: volcanoes.

Auckland is built on a nest of them. Fifty or so volcanic cones litter the area with some long since extinct and used for tourism and others still relatively new (Rangitoto) in geological terms.

What are the risks of another one popping up? Nobody knows. Seriously, if you visit GeoNet  or any of the other sites that talk about volcanoes, all you get is reassurance like this:

Auckland’s existing volcanoes are unlikely to become active again, but the Auckland Volcanic Field itself is young and still active.

Which is not very reassuring, if you ask me. Take this information, for example:

The type of volcanic activity in Auckland means each eruption has occurred at a new location; these are coming from a single active ‘hot spot' of magma about 100 km below the city. 

Which suggests that should a new volcano pop up, it’ll literally pop up. No point checking out the existing cones – only Rangitoto has had repeat eruptions in the past 250,000 years.

GeoNet has 11 monitoring sites around Auckland, but when you ask the internet about predicting the next volcanic eruption you find it’s more of an art than a science.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum cheerful tells us that it’s not likely in our lifetimes:

“There have been 48 eruptions over almost 250,000 years – one every 5,000 years on average”

But then goes on to say we don’t know when these eruptions happened, so the averaging theory may not stack up. And after that we’re told:

There is no way of knowing when it will happen.
The last eruption (Rangitoto) was by far the biggest.

And my favourite line:

Auckland’s volcanoes are powered by runny basaltic magma, which rises through the crust quickly, at several kilometres per hour. So when the next eruption happens, whether it’s tomorrow or in 5000 years’ time, we won’t get much warning.

What sort of damage will a volcanic eruption in Auckland cause? Well there’s the initial blast radius, the shockwave radius, the lava damage (if it’s the right kind of volcano), potential for massive amounts of super-heated water to be flung about (if it’s in the harbour), ash clouds and so on.

I’ve written a secondary school grade essay on volcanoes because our country’s only serious international telecommunications link, the Southern Cross Cable network, lands on either side of the Auckland isthmus (one in Takapuna and one in Whenuapai) only 15 km apart smack on the top of an active volcanic field.

A single eruption in the middle would potentially take out both landing stations and then, we as a nation are stuffed.

All our international communications would be down for a period of months at a minimum. Our ability to trade commodities online would cease. Our government’s relations with other nations would grind to a halt – and I’m not talking about our vital trade negotiations or our role in South Pacific peace keeping, but mundane daily things like our ability to trade currency and update the stock markets with information.

Any business based in New Zealand that tried to communicate with customers outside New Zealand would be cut off. Our ability to let the world know what was happening would slow to a trickle and you can forget us recovering from that in a hurry.

I’ve always been ambivalent about the calls for another international cable because of disaster recovery needs, but having taken a closer look at our current situation I have to say it’s not pretty. We probably won’t see a volcano pop up in our lifetimes, but the downside if it does happen is quite severe.

Risk assessments must address two issues – the likelihood of an event happening and the damage from that event if it does. In this case we’ve got a low likelihood but a tremendous amount of damage should that event occur.

As Wikileaks told us, the US considers the Southern Cross Cable network to be a critical infrastructure that needs to be protected and that the Department of Homeland Security has included the landing sites in its National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP).

We have a single point of failure that’s got a tremendous amount of risk associated with it.

We can mitigate that risk of course. A second cable that lands somewhere else would do the trick, but the cost of laying one ($400m for Pacific Fibre’s planned route) is prohibitive if all we’re talking about is a DR plan.

Fortunately, we could use said capacity for other things and we’ve discussed that elsewhere on this blog (and I’ll do so again shortly).

Any future second cable must include a requirement that it land somewhere other than Auckland. The problem with that is that it increases the cost to the builder but given that I expect the government would need to be a part owner, I suspect that won’t be a problem.

You can see the government’s National Plan for Infrastructure here (WARNING: PDF) and it says telecommunications infrastructure is “able to deal with significant disruption” and that the goal for the government beyond the UFB and RBI projects is to make sure the regulatory regime works well. That’s it, for the next 20 years, according to the plan.

In fact, the whole plan looks only at domestic infrastructure, and I find that intriguing. Telecommunications is the only area that is international in the way this report defines it. Gas pipelines, roads, rail links, electricity production – it’s all domestic stuff. Only telecommunications has that complete reliance on an international link, and yet everything else relies on that link working continuously.

The report, quite rightly, focuses on Christchurch and the rebuild work going on there. The report’s three year action plan, point seven, is to “Use lessons from Christchurch to significantly enhance the resilience of our infrastructure network”.

International telecommunications is a single point of failure that could bring our economy grinding to a halt. It’s not about surfing the net or downloading the next episode of our favourite TV shows, it’s about ensuring we survive as an independent entity.

To quote from the report:

The Plan describes resilient infrastructure as being able to deal with significant disruption and changing circumstances. This recognises that resilience is not only about infrastructure that is able to withstand significant disruption but is also able to recover well. Buildings and lifelines that save lives are a priority, while the earthquakes also revealed the resilience of widely distributed but highly collaborative networks.

It’s time we looked at our international link in that light.