Many Australians woke up on Wednesday 8th November to a strange, other-worldly silence caused by a lack of mobile phone notifications and no access to the internet or each other – essentially disconnected. The cause: an Optus network nationwide outage. A pertinent reminder alerting us to our reliance on network coverage to live our ordinary day to day lives. All Optus services were offline: home and mobile services, internet connections and cloud computing. There were no incoming messages, no calls, no wifi, no outgoing calls, no emergency calls from both mobile and home phones, no payment facilities or phone banking, no weather, no music, etc. 

Some businesses suffered financial loss due to a disconnect with EFTPOS and payment systems and one Optus customer’s cat didn’t get fed due to the wifi disruption. But, there were much bigger issues such as, Melbourne train services were cancelled and/ delayed and according to ACMA ‘the carriage of emergency calls were adversely affected over the Optus network’. Some 10 million Optus customers were affected during the 12 hour network outage. 

There are 3 telecommunication providers in this country, they are Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. The mobile market share of Optus is 31% according to the Australian Financial Review. The implications of one of these networks going offline are far-reaching and potentially catastrophic. So who is to blame? 

Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, called for an immediate review of Optus services and within 10 days, Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin had to face a gruelling senate enquiry. By Monday 20th November, Bayer Rosmarin had resigned. Matthew Doran for the ABC derided the ‘blame culture’ we have in Australia as though her resignation would make any tangible difference to the running of Optus. He believes, ‘mistakes happen and we have to find a way to be accountable and make amends’ rather than find a scapegoat. 

According to Optus as quoted on The Conversation, the outage happened as a result of a routine software upgrade that is largely considered to be caused by human error. The cascading fail of the network’s operating system that allowed for customer access of communication services and internet routing was in freefall, as explained by Optus themselves here: 

“These routing information changes propagated through multiple layers in our network and exceeded preset safety levels on key routers which could not handle these. This resulted in those routers disconnecting from the Optus IP Core network to protect themselves.”

They assured customers that this was a one-off error and they were mitigating risks for future upgrades to ensure customer protection and service. The Conversation article referenced above believes that the nationwide Optus outage shows that Optus is ‘not fit for purpose’, that this kind of lengthy and broad disconnection highlights deficiencies in engineering, infrastructure, network capability and resilience. Adding to that list is the communication Optus shared with customers, media and government during and following the outage. No-one really knew what was happening at the time of the outage and Bayer Rosmarin herself at the Senate enquiry said she carried a Telstra and Vodafone SIM card, in case. Should we all have a spare SIM card of a different network in case? This seems a ridiculous waste of finite resources and a side step in managing vulnerability amongst Austalia’s communication network, of which we believe, at the very least needs to be reliable and communicative. We believe that better government regulation and compliance measures for the biggest private companies would help to drive service that is equipped, dependable and has a vision for connectivity across Australia and beyond.

As we put to bed this blog for 2023 we wish everyone a very Merry Festivus and hope that we have offered some perspective for understanding the fractured world of digital media and how it effects our everyday lives, for better and for worse.