Cyclone Gabrielle: Expert calls for review into how telecommunications companies deal with major events

The telecommunications industry is being warned a review into how they deal with major events is needed after over 200,000 Kiwis were left without power.

Cyclone Gabrielle has knocked out communications to large parts of the North Island, with Hawke's Bay and Gisborne particularly hard hit.

Transpower issued a "grid emergency" on Tuesday and warned people should be "prepared to be without power for days to weeks, rather than hours". 

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said on Tuesday there were 225,000 people without power across the North Island, but that is down to around 140,000 on Wednesday morning.

New Zealand Telecommunications Forum (TCF) CEO Paul Brislen told AM on Wednesday the cellphone towers are "largely okay" but they just need power. 

"The problem is getting power to them and once the batteries have run through, once the generators are exhausted, getting power is the key issue," he told AM.

"So the good side of that is once the power comes on, we should be able to light up the network fairly quickly. The downside is it's taking quite some time to do that." 

Transpower chief executive Alison Andrew told AM later on Wednesday they're working hard to get power restored, particularly in Hawke's Bay and Gisborne.

"We have a helicopter going up from Wellington this morning, with all our equipment and people on board to try and assess the damage and see what we are dealing with and how fast we might be able to get that returned to service," she said. 

"In the meantime, we are looking at what we can do to bypass that substation and bring some power across from the north into another substation, so reconfiguring networks even further."

But she warned reconfiguring the network will be "quite challenging". 

"We are very mindful of the interruption to communities and businesses and how critical power is," she said. 

"We don't think we'll be able to get full resilience restored to the region [east coast of the North Island] for quite some time until we understand Redclyffe Substation, but in the meantime, we're doing our best to work around that."  

Brislen said the industry needs to review how they deal with large-scale events. 

"We'll have to revisit how we handle large-scale events because large scale just got a lot bigger," he said. 

"We'll have to consider how we equip people locally to be able to handle this kind of thing and revisit the whole set-up I think." 

Brislen said the impacts of the cyclone were an "unprecedented event" and has raised the question of whether Kiwis should still be getting rid of their landline phones. 

"Landlines are just as susceptible to this kind of weather impact as cell phone towers are," he said.

"We've lost comms to fixed line and mobile in almost equal numbers, so it isn't a matter of cell phone versus landline. It's about power." 

New Zealand Telecommunications Forum (TCF) CEO Paul Brislen.
New Zealand Telecommunications Forum (TCF) CEO Paul Brislen. Photo credit: AM

Brislen was also asked if Kiwis should look at investing in Starlink, which the Wairoa council has used, but he said it's not an option for everyone. 

"It does work when there's power. So again, if you've got a generator at home, if you're on a large farm or a very rural property, it's probably the ideal solution," he explained. 

"But for those in the city, in the towns, if your power goes out, your Starlink won't work any more than your mobile phone. So it is a good solution to have for certain areas but it's not just the golden ticket." 

Watch the full interviews with Paul Brislen and Alison Andrew above.