Interview with Sarah MacDonald, ABC Sydney

SARAH MACDONALD, HOST: Sarah Macdonald with you this morning. And yeah, a couple of people pointing out that $5 won't be enough if I want to go and get a coffee in terms of the cash, yes, that's why we have it here at the office. Thank you for that and those texting in about why they use cash. The Federal Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland joins me now on ABC Radio Sydney. Good morning.


MACDONALD: What have Optus told you, if anything? Have you been in touch?

ROWLAND: I certainly have been. What I know at this stage is that it is a significant disruption that I'm sure consumers and businesses around Australia are aware of right now. It is a problem deep in their network. So, a core network problem that is impacting both their fixed line services, including broadband, but also their mobile services. Optus has said that they are doing everything they can at this stage to identify the faults and to rectify it. But I do appreciate that for your listeners and for consumers right around Australia, this is very frustrating at the moment, and there is a strong desire to have some timeframes about when this might be rectified.

MACDONALD: So, when you say deep in the network, does that mean the software update, when that went to go through, it completely malfunctioned?

ROWLAND: It could be both that, I'd be reluctant to speculate on the precise technical details, but it does sound like it is a significant part of what we call the core network. So, basically, the brains of the network have been impacted here. So, it is significant. It would also be reliant on other types of software and other pieces of infrastructure and electronics across the network. So, it sounds like it is quite complex, but equally, it is a very frustrating situation nonetheless for Australians this morning.

MACDONALD: And could it be a hack, Minister?

ROWLAND: I'd be reluctant to speculate on that at this stage. I have not seen comments from Optus, and the CEO has been in contact with me and did not indicate that that was the case. So, I'd be reluctant to say anything else on that.

MACDONALD: I mean, they're very hard to communicate with. People are getting very frustrated because we're not really hearing from Optus. So, we're glad you spoke to them. Have you said to them, can they please put some communications out?

ROWLAND: Certainly, and I was assured that there is a further statement forthcoming. And as I have also indicated elsewhere, we are so reliant on our telecommunication services to receive our media, it's how we consume news. But at this stage also, I think people should be thinking about the broadcasting medium, the stable, free, ubiquitous platforms of radio and television, which people will be turning to if they are unable to access that on their devices right now. So, I would urge Optus to do everything necessary to be able to get their messages out to people because I'm in Quakers Hill right now in my electorate northwest Sydney. I was just in the cafe where the EFTPOS was down. People are quite concerned about how they're going to conduct their business today.

MACDONALD: Did you buy anyone a coffee Michelle Rowland?

ROWLAND: I did. I bought a coffee for a whole table and people do highly recommend the Corner Shop Cafe in Quakers Hill. But I also do recommend that Optus do everything necessary to communicate with their customers because of course, this affects other people too, who aren't on the Optus network, people trying to get in touch with loved ones, conduct their businesses. So, I certainly wouldn’t want to make light of this fact.

MACDONALD: Absolutely.

ROWLAND: I do indeed hope that Optus take that on board.

MACDONALD: Yeah, well, a coffee may help a little bit, but this is very frustrating for people. Michelle Rowland is with us, the Federal Communications Minister in Quakers Hill in Sydney this morning, urging Optus to get in touch. I am getting texts saying this like Liz from Bensville, “this is why telecommunications needs to be renationalised,” others saying, “this is why Telstra should never have been privatised, telecommunications are essential and should be available to all,” what are your thoughts on that?

ROWLAND: They are absolutely essential and I think that it goes without saying how reliant we are on our services. But I think it also speaks to the fact that there are obligations on our carriers. They have a number of rights through being carriers, being able to construct infrastructure, for example, and being part of the fabric of not only our social lives but our whole economy at the moment. So, I think at this stage I don't disagree absolutely with the need for this to be resolved as quickly as possible. But it certainly does remind us how reliant we are on these systems.

MACDONALD: We're just talking to a telecommunications expert, and he was saying we need to have a better system for when networks go down, that other networks, that customers can be automatically put onto other networks. So, say if Optus goes down that they automatically, in emergencies especially, can go to Telstra when we have such things as bushfires and floods. There's some competition issues there and I think it would need you to intervene. Would you do that?

ROWLAND: There certainly are issues here and they go beyond competition. We are and have been in receipt of the ACCC's most recent report into emergency roaming services just in the last couple of weeks and we know that this is technically feasible. We have just announced in the last couple of days that we are going to be working with the carriers to get emergency roaming working. This is something that's been looked at the industry for some time, but we are determined to take action as a government on it. And just in relation to Triple Zero, the way the Triple Zero networks are configured now is that if you're calling from your mobile device and it is down, it should, subject to the way it's being configured again, be able to go directly onto another carrier's network. I have sought advice on ensuring that emergency services are available also from landlines. So, I am currently investigating that with the other carriers, with Telstra and TPG, for example, and also with our regulator, because I think at this time, emergency services are absolutely critical to get right. We know that people are frustrated, but first and foremost, responsibility here is to keep Australians safe and make sure that they can rely on that Triple Zero service. So, I'm in the process of investigating that at the moment.

MACDONALD: Thank you so much for your time this morning. Great to chat.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.

MACDONALD: There's Michelle Rowland on ABC Radio Sydney, the Federal Communications Minister. As this Optus hack, well, sorry, she said there's no signs at all it's a hack. But this Optus outage, I should say, looks like it was a software issue. This is what Optus is telling us this morning, and it's not a lot. Optus has put out a statement – “We are aware of an issue that may be impacting some of our mobile and internet customers. We are currently working to identify the cause and apologise for any inconvenience”. In case of an emergency, customers can still call Triple Zero, but it will be interesting to see if the Federal Government can push and use its powers in terms of emergency situations where you get to go on another carrier. Because in an emergency this would be extraordinarily frustrating for people.