10 November 2023

Letter from the Editor: who is responsible when the phones stop working?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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woman on phone

Wednesday’s phone outage did more than cause frustration. It demonstrated a critical problem with Australian telecommunications. Photo: File.

If you’re an Optus customer, Wednesday was a day you’d probably rather forget.

It certainly was for the ACT Government. The so-far unexplained outage felled services from Access Canberra contact centres to waste management and mental health care access.

Triple zero calls from mobiles were unaffected, although emergency calls from landlines were inoperable.

The outage affected up to 10 million Australians and was also characterised by near silence from Optus itself. Communications minister Michelle Rowland made it plain she was not happy with the lack of explanations, reassurance or engagement from CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin.

Presumably, the CEO, who was also at the helm during last year’s Optus data breach, was thinking more about the shareholders than the customers when she chose to remain tight-lipped.

So how can what appears to be a fault deep in the core of the system bring down almost half the country’s communications network?

Telecommunications constant Paul Budde says it shouldn’t happen: telcos should have redundancies built in and the capacity to operate parallel, unlinked systems that could be switched in the event of a major outage.

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Bushfire-affected areas now have roaming capacity that enables users to switch networks, but this capacity could be extended across all areas to mitigate the effects of other natural disasters, including floods, cyclones or even human-generated events like the Optus outage.

That would, of course, cost money, and in a competitive environment, telcos have resisted the level of investment that would require, resisting suggestions around sharing their infrastructure more widely than they already do.

But how can they justify that stance? Telecommunications are more than a consumer choice or a business option. As Wednesday’s outage demonstrated, they’re of critical importance to the economy, our safety and wellbeing.

And these are not rare events: over the past few years, there have been several mass outages, let alone the constant risk posed by system hacking.

Telstra once operated under the universal service obligation, which was replaced in 2018 with the universal service guarantee, to provide fixed voice services to premises in Australia on reasonable request.

Is it now time for the federal government to step in and ensure all networks are fit for purpose when the consequences of failure can be, literally, life-threatening?

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This is an even more urgent issue in regional areas, which are always poorly served by telecommunications networks. When Telstra promises you they cover 96 per cent of Australians, they mean exactly that – people, not geography.

Optus is largely useless in rural Australia, and despite endless rollouts of mobile towers, there are plenty of rural and regional areas where coverage is patchy at best or non-existent at worst.

It’s a recipe for disaster in a changing climate where extreme weather events are predicted to rise and communities increasingly depend on mobile communications.

Paul Budde makes the argument that government responses over the past few decades have been a patchwork of short-term solutions and bandaids: mobile towers, subsidies for boosting coverage and the like.

He suggests a better option would be a levy on telcos, yielding investment that would fund ongoing investment in a system that would be disaster-proof, ensure system maintenance and meet service obligations.

Healthy market competition is a good thing in general. But where lives, wellbeing and community safety are at stake, there has to be a better way to ensure we all stay connected.

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The time this saga started suggests that the outage could be the result of a failed maintenance job. There usually requires technical recovery measures specified as part of change control. However, if a core network routing device is involved, e.g. when protocols like BGP are involved, no amount of redundancy in your own area is going to cut it – it would take hours and hours for the network to rectify itself, as seems to be the case here.

There is just too much managerialism in IT these days. People don’t have a clue about what they are doing, and all they care about is their power and pay packets, achieved by outsourcing everything, knowledge and problems.

It’s not just rural Australia where Optus is useless – there are a lot of shadows within Canberra where the service is appalling. I tried to cancel my service with them when I couldn’t use my mobile from my own home, only to discover that there is no way of contacting Optus, apart from by phone (which wasn’t working). When I tried contacting them from other locations, I was faced with hour long queues. They don’t have an email address you can contact. It’s a communications company you can’t actually communicate with. I ended up sending a registered letter, which they responded to with a gibberish computer generated response which made no sense. Meanwhile I kept getting higher and higher overdue notices for an account I couldn’t use. I needed to get the ombudsman involved. And despite finally cancelling my account five years ago, I still got caught up in the data breach. Never again will I deal with them.

ChrisinTurner2:29 pm 11 Nov 23

It is important to note that bushfire alerts only seem to go to mobile phones.

Like QANTAS, the OPTUS CEO doesn’t give a rat’s rear end. She’s too busy wallpapering her mansion with $100 notes

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