NBN Co will be forced to replace 10,000 faulty broadband devices in homes across the Blue Mountains west of Sydney after residents reported the technology was frequently struck by lightning and in one instance led to blue sparks flying out of a modem in a family’s home.
Around 20,000 of the over 32,000 homes in the Blue Mountains and Emu Plains have been connected to the national broadband network via fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) technology, which was set up under the Coalition government’s multi-technology mixed model.
That means fibre runs all the way to the edge of the property and connects to the home via the existing copper wire lead-ins from the curb.
Recent electrical storms in the Blue Mountains have wreaked havoc on the boxes that link the fibre to the copper. When lightning strikes the distribution boxes outside the house, sparks are sent flying up the copper lines, in turn frying the modems in people’s homes.
Guardian Australia understands the company will now be replacing 10,000 – or half – of devices inside the home that the company has identified as being prone to be affected by lightning.
A spokesman for NBN Co confirmed the company had found issues with the devices in areas of hard ground like sandstone. Sandstone is a better electrical conductor than other soft earths.
He said the devices fail in a safe way but the company nevertheless is issuing replacement devices people can install themselves.
“We are now deploying a strengthened [device] that is much less likely to fail in these conditions.
“In addition to this and the temporary measures already implemented, we have now started working with internet service providers to look at how we can improve our ability to rapidly detect devices that fail and implement a ‘fast-track’ solution that aims to ship a replacement strengthened device directly to customers to plug and play within 24 hours of the fault being detected,” he said.
“We apologise to those customers whose service has been impacted and reiterate our ongoing commitment to working with internet service providers and local communities to help deliver a better customer experience.”
‘There’s this massive spark coming out of the NBN box’
Tina and Wayne McDougall live on Bowen Mountain at the foot of the Blue Mountains in western Sydney.
Tina said that late one evening in May she was lying in bed and could hear the lightning strikes getting closer, but could also hear a buzzing before each strike.
“And I kept hearing it … It’s absolutely terrifying,” she said. “And then I sat up and I looked and I thought, ‘hang on a tick, there’s a blue flash before the lightning’, and it was coming from our study.
“I got up and sure enough there’s this massive spark, like a flash, coming out of the NBN box.”
The sparks continued to fly after the circuit had been tripped. It was only once the phone cord was removed from the box that it stopped. Once power was restored, McDougall said she tried to plug the modem back in and it gave off sparks, puffs of smoke and burned her fingernail.
NBN Co technicians were quick to replace the modem – for the third time – and assured McDougall it wouldn’t happen again. Nevertheless, they gave the family a spare unit should the current box fry.
McDougall said she was concerned it could happen to others and cause a fire. Guardian Australia has heard another household in the Blue Mountains has had to have their device replaced eight times.
The federal Labor MP for Macquarie, Susan Templeman, has raised the issue repeatedly with NBN Co and the minister responsible, Paul Fletcher, over the past year. She said it had caused people in her electorate to become anxious and uncertain about their devices in storms.
“You have people like Tina who were absolutely terrified by what they saw when the boxes sparked, and another gentleman, who is an engineer, was equally concerned about what he witnessed and its potential for ignition.
“All NBN FttC customers in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury deserve a reliable service, and it’s not just us – lightening doesn’t only strike in my electorate.”
The NBN Co chief executive, Stephen Rue, told a Senate estimates hearing in March the storms had caused “higher-than-expected” faults, and it wasn’t a simple problem.
“It is not a simple case of lightning travelling down a wire and tripping a fuse. There can be multiple ways that lightning can affect any equipment, but a common cause in these cases appears to be what’s called earth potential rise,” he said.
“This is a complex electrical issue. When lightning hits the ground, it creates a potential difference between ground and the neutral power connections in premises connected to an NBN distribution point unit. Many of the compromised NBN devices appear to contain components that fail when subjected to these particular conditions.”
Rue said despite the incidents of sparks and black marks being left on some devices, the marks “present no safety concern”.
He said the company was looking for a longer-term fix to the problem.
According to data provided to Senate estimates, FttC reported a 10% fault rate in the last financial year, double the fault rate of the fibre-to-the-premises setup. The company also reported that 3% of the 437,000 boxes installed at the kerb are replaced every month.