Cyclone Gabrielle: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins won't rule out regulation to improve telecommunications resilience

One of the most distressing aspects of the Cyclone Gabrielle disaster is that families have not been able to learn if their loved ones are alive.

At lunchtime, more than 400 cellphone towers were still out of action and the Prime Minister isn't ruling out forcing regulations on telcos to ensure we can still connect in a disaster.

Tairāwhiti is a region in ruins.

At Te Karaka, the river burst its banks. All the residents went up the hill and waited the night out up there.

From little babies to grandparents, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins checked in on the community on Thursday.

"Pretty grim, yeah it's been pretty grim," Hipkins said.

On the outskirts of the region, everywhere you look the catastrophe whacks you in the guts - a community cut off. 

"Clearly communications remains a really big challenge here," he said. "People aren't able to connect with each other. So there's a lot of nervousness and all of the feelings that come from being isolated."

In the middle of Gisborne, it is abnormally normal. People are out and about. They just can't get out or get any information in.

"I want to acknowledge that one of the real pressure points at the moment is that people are just finding it really difficult to communicate with each other," said Hipkins. 

All communications this far have been saved for essentials, emergency comms, flights, health, and getting payroll through. That's until today when a Starlink mini satellite was set up for the public.

Crowds gathered around the little Starlink - the first contact they've had with the outside world - their first contact with friends and whanau. Tourists were huddled trying to book a flight out, saying they were trapped. 

They went to the airport and the airline wouldn't book them a flight. It said they'd have to book it online, they said.

Mark Warren had not heard from his sister in three days until he saw her on Newshub Live at 6 on Wednesday night. 

"After I got over the initial shock there was a certain element of relief," he said 

It's all boiled down to a single point of failure. 

"I think there’s maybe a need to turn to something a bit more primitive to have that as a backup in these situations. So yeah technology’s not always what it’s cracked up to be I think," said Warren.

As of midday, 436 cellsites belonging to our three telcos remained offline. 

"I think we need to make sure we have basic levels of connectivity as quickly as we can after a natural disaster," said Hipkins. 

But that's not the case and it won't be for some time. No one can say when these regions will be back online.

"It’s purely around getting power to the sites to run them. That’s the thing with telecommunications, we don’t run them in isolation. We’re utterly reliant on having electricity supply to keep these things operational," said New Zealand Telecommunications Forum chief executive Paul Brislen.

The telcos admitting they failed, their towers run on batteries that only hold up power for 4-8 hours.

"I think it's fair to say we all wish the network had held up better," said Brislen. 

Hipkins wouldn't rule in or rule out any new regulation to force telcos to build more resilience into their networks. 

Regulation is just one possible step in the reconstruction.