Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: This morning the Government has announced a review to take stock of the large-scale outage which left millions of customers and critical services without mobile and internet.
Michelle Rowland is the Communications Minister who has called this review, and she joins us now. Minister, thanks for joining us.

KARVELAS: Can you tell us what exactly this review will investigate?
ROWLAND: I think it's important that we have this post‑incident review to understand the impacts of this outage. We know that so many, around ten million people, were impacted by it. But I think the key thing here is appreciating how essential connectivity is for Australian consumers and businesses.
We want to have a robust set of terms of reference, and I've asked my department to commence that now. There'll be consultation across the industry, and with technical experts and expertise within the Department about that precise Terms of Reference.
I think there'll be at least three elements. Firstly, is understanding the technical nature of the fault. Secondly, ways in which this could have been mitigated. And, thirdly, what this says overall about the sector to ensure that we have other networks understanding what went on here and learning the lessons and implementing those recommendations.
KARVELAS: What's the timeline of the review? How quickly can it report and be acted on?
ROWLAND: We’ll have a better understanding of that once the terms of reference are finalised and once we have a definitive statement from Optus about the cause of this outage. I do want to stress to your listeners that we intend to do this thoroughly and expeditiously and that the recommendations from it will be ones that are capable of implementation.
We will do it, we'll take the time necessary but certainly, we know that people want answers soon. We're also very mindful again about the impacts here. We want to get those lessons up and running and implemented as soon as possible.
KARVELAS: Have you spoken to the Optus CEO?
ROWLAND: I have on several occasions, and I know that the Department and a number of agencies have been in touch with Optus over the past 24 hours. I think the most important thing, as I said to you and your listeners yesterday morning, is that consumers and businesses expect transparency understanding what those impacts are. This was highly disruptive to people's businesses. It was a cause of great anxiety for people and for some people, economic loss may have been the result. So, I think the most important thing here is to ensure that there's ongoing communication and that's done as broadly and effectively as possible.
KARVELAS: Did you tell her that it wasn't your job to do her job?
ROWLAND: What I expressed to the CEO was the importance of having transparency and communicating this, that there was a high degree of anxiety. It was precisely what I have said publicly as well. And I think Australians expect that.
I think that Australians are also reasonable people when it comes to understanding that problems do occur, but they do want to be kept updated.
What I said publicly was what I also said to the CEO directly.
KARVELAS: Yeah, I mean it's just ‑ surely that kind of lack of communication and the fact that the Government had to step in when actually, you know, you weren't running Optus, is a pretty fundamental flaw in the way that they've managed this, right?
ROWLAND: Look, I do think Government did have an important role to play here for one express purpose as well. There were many, but one really important purpose - we have the Triple Zero call service. We understood, and even after speaking to you yesterday morning, that there may have been issues there.
I spoke immediately to the emergency call person who is Telstra and my agencies who monitor compliancy, because safety of Australians, making sure that people have confidence in Triple Zero is absolutely paramount.
We did have an important role here as a government to understand that. I would also point out to your listeners that the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority has actually independently commenced its own assessment into Optus's compliance with these rules around emergency calls. That is really fundamental to ensure that we take the lessons from there as they might apply across industry as well.
KARVELAS: Now, I've spoken to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman who says essentially that there's been a massive erosion of trust for Optus. Do you agree?
ROWLAND: The TIO is very well-informed, and would have made that statement based on evidence before her.
I think the important thing here again, as the TIO stated, is that people who have been impacted and might be looking to seek some form of compensation, that at this stage they keep receipts, they keep some documented evidence of where they might have suffered loss, because that will be important to take complaints going forward.
The TIO enforces those provisions under the Australian Consumer Law but also the Telecommunication Protections Code, so she is well‑informed and has a robust process in place for dealing with those complaints.
KARVELAS: Do you have confidence in the CEO of Optus?
ROWLAND: The most important thing for me to say is that I have confidence that we need to ensure our emergency services are running properly. I think that it is more important for consumers and businesses to have confidence in our telecommunications networks. But of course, it's important for Government to have that confidence as well.
Competition is a good thing for consumers. It's important that we have a variety of networks that people can rely on. It's important that Australians can trust those networks. Because in the absence of the competition, consumers pay more for less and there is less innovation.
The reason why we have a competitive sector today is because it is an open one, we have infrastructure competition, services competition.
What I would say to your listeners is that we as a government really want to ensure that Australians continue to have that choice, that we've got a sector that remains competitive and it's important that every part of the sector do its bit in every way they can within their organisations to make sure that happens.
KARVELAS: Optus says it will reward customers for their loyalty, but they haven't actually said they're going to provide compensation. Do you want them to make that announcement?
ROWLAND: I think it's really important to recognise that Australians, being reasonable people, understand that things sometimes go wrong. But they also have an expectation that large corporations will do the right thing by them when they suffer loss or inconvenience.
I have pointed this out publicly and I again state that.
I also note that the ACMA has highlighted that in fact some contracts allow customers to apply for a refund or rebate when they can't use their services because of an outage, and sometimes telcos do offer compensation for loss of service even if they don't have to. I think those comments from the ACMA are well made and I think they are ones that Optus would do well to take on board.
KARVELAS: Minister, do we have any estimates on how much this may have cost the economy?
ROWLAND: I don't have that estimate yet. It's one that Optus would have a better sense of, but I will say this: we know that connectivity is so fundamental to every part of our functioning of a society and our economy, and we know that those disruptions were very costly, and they also presented a risk to safety.
In terms of an actual monetary amount, I don't think that's possible to estimate at this stage. But I do know that those impacts have been definitely felt across consumers and businesses alike.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much, Minister, for joining us.
ROWLAND: My pleasure.
KARVELAS: That's the Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. We have asked of course for Optus to speak to us. We have been unsuccessful but Michelle Rowland has now made herself available a couple of times over the last few days.