Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW Melbourne

NEIL MITCHELL, HOST: On the line, Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland. Good morning.




MITCHELL: Do you yet know what went wrong?


ROWLAND: Optus has not issued a definitive statement about the cause of yesterday's fault. Judging from the scale and scope, the impact on broadband, landline and mobile services, it does appear to be a fault that is deep within what we call the ‘core network’. Essentially the brains of the network, where routing and other electronics are located. I note that other commentators have surmised that that appears to be the cause. We're yet to see a definitive statement from Optus on the precise cause.


MITCHELL: That's a bit of a worry, isn't? I mean, there are suggestions it could have been because they were doing an upgrade of that area. Is that possible? Technically?


ROWLAND: It is technically possible, but that is also one of the reasons why I've announced today a post-incident review to be undertaken by my Department, because it's critical that we understand what occurred and identify lessons to be learned. I think that's the most important thing because we've got other networks as well. The industry overall needs to do better.


MITCHELL: How can we be sure it won't happen again if we don't really know what happened?


ROWLAND: We can't be sure yet. I think that's one of the areas of concern. It's pleasing to see that it does appear that services are up now. But again, this is one of the aspects that this review will examine. We'll look at this expeditiously and really important here is what can be implemented to make sure that this kind of incident is mitigated into the future. Because we rely on connectivity so much as a society and an economy.


MITCHELL: It's not just another company, is it? This is an essential service. What is plan B? I know you've introduced something in emergencies, but is it possible, and I was talking to a tech expert about this yesterday, that if a network goes down, that you get roaming and automatically you're picked up by another network. Can that be done?


ROWLAND: What we're looking at at the moment, having the ACCC recently identify that disaster roaming is technically feasible, we've got the industry on board to undertake some trials there. Now, that's in the case of disasters.


I think one of the most important things here is understanding that industry has agreed to come together, that it is something that is technically feasible and we are actively looking at this now.


I think it really gives a lot of weight to it that the independent competition regulator, the ACCC, has undertaken this study and has determined that that is possible during a disaster.


MITCHELL. So, that would mean if the network went down that you automatically almost switched to another network, correct?


ROWLAND: What happens – and it's useful for your listeners to understand, because one of the most important safety aspects here is access to Triple Zero. When one network is down, there is the ability and arrangements that are already in place for a device to search for an alternative network, and that's called “camping” on another network.


I know, having spoken to the Triple Zero operator yesterday, their data indicated that it was working, which was pleasing. Unfortunately, we had reports during the days that some types of devices were perhaps not being able to access Triple Zero. The fact that Optus landlines weren't able to access Triple Zero was a great cause of concern as well.


That's why the regulator, the ACMA, is actually commencing its own independent investigation into Optus's compliance there. That's really important for Australians to have confidence in triple Zero.


MITCHELL: Well, it's dangerous, wasn't it?


ROWLAND: Absolutely. I think, again, we know how much people rely on their mobile services. A lot of people do make emergency calls for their mobiles, but having had reports, there are a number of people with landlines who weren't able to do that. That is very concerning.


MITCHELL: But I'm talking about a plan B where everybody gets access to another network when these goes down. Is that possible?


ROWLAND: It is technically. It's something that has been looked at over the years and this idea of mobile roaming is one that is subject to independent assessment by the ACCC. I would point out that there is what we call ‘redundancy’ for some operators, some big companies. For example, I see in Melbourne yesterday, those services were able to be restored because an alternative provider was available. But I think that this issue of reliance, this issue of ‘what kind of redundancy is there?’ are all ones that should be looked at as part of this post-incident review because people will be rightly asking questions about that.


MITCHELL: In that sense, it's a bit of a wake-up call, isn't it?


ROWLAND: It is a wake-up call. It's a wake-up call not only for operators, but I think it's a wake-up call as a society overall to appreciate how much we rely on this connectivity.


I note that a lot of the messages going out yesterday updating people were available through internet and messages on mobiles, but when you don't have that connectivity, you don't get it at all. Which is why turning to the broadcast media was something that I expressed yesterday was really important, because how else do you get these messages out? So many people are consuming all of their data, all of their media on digital devices these days, and when that goes down, that really impedes the ability to communicate.


MITCHELL: Yeah, well, I don't know that Optus handled the broadcast media too well. It didn't do a lot getting the message out.


ROWLAND: Well, I made the comment straight up yesterday morning that people were anxious. I was out and about in the suburbs in my electorate yesterday morning. Small businesses were being impacted. People were concerned. When you can't get information on your mobile device or through the internet as you're used to, you do have to look to those other forms of broadcast media.


MITCHELL: Okay, so will we get a quick result on all this, do you think? Quick answer?


ROWLAND: I think we need to have an expeditious result. I think we need to start with Optus being able to give a definitive answer on the cause of the fault. I will ensure that this post incident review is done expeditiously, but also meaningful and does point to lessons learned and implementing those across networks.


MITCHELL: Have you spoken to the Optus Chief Executive yet?


ROWLAND: I have, and I've also directly expressed to the CEO the need to make sure that there is timely advice that it's given to customers in all aspects of this, including post the restoration.


MITCHELL: And it would be fair to say a lot of businesses would be well entitled to compensation here, wouldn't they?


ROWLAND: Firstly, again, I think Australians are reasonable people and they expect when the wrong thing has been done by them, by a corporation, or they've suffered some loss or inconvenience as a result of this kind of outage, they would have a reasonable expectation of some form of compensation.


I haven't seen, again, a definitive statement from Optus to that front, but I also note the ACMA points out that some contracts actually allow customers to apply for a refund or rebate when they can't use their service because of an outage.


The TIO has also provided useful advice, particularly for small businesses who May have suffered loss, to keep receipts because that kind of evidentiary basis is useful going forward in enforcing the telco codes, but also the Australian Consumer Law.


MITCHELL: Thank you so much for time. Michelle Rowland, Federal Communications Minister and we had that advice for you yesterday. If you're in business, keep your receipts.