Emergency network outages could be solved with this roaming tech

Telstra temporary disaster roaming simulation
Image: Telstra.

Telstra has demonstrated its Temporary Disaster Roaming technology at its 5G Innovation Centre in Southport, Queensland. ‘TDR’, as it’s known, means that during floods, bushfires and other natural disasters, where your telco’s network is knocked out, you will be able to temporarily ‘roam’ to another carrier.

TDR is part of the Australian government’s initiative to improve mobile communications during times of natural disasters. Telstra has been working with Optus and TPG since November 2023, and is the first to demonstrate the capability. It follows the widespread national Optus outage that impacted millions of Australians last year. However, TDR would only be initiated by the government, and is currently not intended to help out a telco that has a major outage.

The collaboration is intended to avoid scenarios where one group of people is denied the ability to reach loved ones or access critical evacuation information while customers of a surviving phone network in the same area still can.

How Telstra Temporary Disaster Roaming works

In the case of a disaster where Telstra’s cell towers are damaged, only 000 calls would be available, assuming another network was still operating.

Telstra’s “proof-of-concept” showed that voice and data services could still be accessed using another carrier. A test handset was used, which lost its signal and then successfully negotiated a connection to another 4G network.

Telstra temporary disaster roaming
The simulation showed how a phone could lose network connectivity but then connect to a temporary disaster roaming (TDR) network from another carrier. Image: Telstra.

In the demo, the ‘Telstra’ network identifier normally shown at the top of a phone’s screen switched to a ‘TDR’ designation, meaning it had moved to Temporary Disaster Roaming. Interestingly, the other carrier’s name did not appear in Telstra’s place.

The roaming process took about as much time as it might normally take for a phone to reconnect after being in Flight Mode. Once the roaming process was complete, the test phone could access the SES website, check the weather, send messages via WhatsApp and make voice calls. 

Why is temporary disaster roaming different?

While it might seem similar to roaming on another network when travelling overseas, TDR is actually quite different, and requires many technical, and non-technical, considerations.

First, TDR needs to be limited to a geographic area for a set amount of time. So, the carriers needed to figure out how to define the coverage area and be able to quickly return to a non-roaming state when the disaster is over.

Next, having to shift a lot of people from one network to another, all at once, has the potential to overload the surviving networks and even cause them to fail. Therefore, it’s vitally important that TDR has little impact on the surviving networks, or otherwise it won’t help anyone if all networks go down.

Then there’s the question of how much data should be allocated to roaming users, which could mean that everyone gets a limited amount, or it’s related to existing data plans.

Who’s paying for it?

Telstra hasn’t looked at what it might cost customers but it’s unlikely that you’ll be slugged with extra charges when using TDR in the case of an emergency. Otherwise, the expectation is that the government will provide funds to support TDR across the carriers.

When will we get it?

While there’s no timeframe as to when TDR might become a reality, Telstra’s simulation showed how it could work, and is helping to guide conversations between industry and government.

Telstra’s Technology Development and Innovation Executive, Channa Seneviratne said: “There’s a lot of learnings coming from the simulation and Telstra will take it to next phase of discussion with the other two providers and government. If we are able to do it by the next disaster season it means that everyone has done their part, but we hope it will be well within three years”.

Image: Telstra.

Following last year’s Optus outage, other countries’ solutions were floated as coming to Australia. Canada, Japan and the USA are also working on or have implemented a form of TDR, so it would be great for Australians to have some form of protection available sooner rather than later.

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