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Shadow Minister for Science and the Arts

Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy

Manager of Opposition Business in the House




9 NOV 2023


TOM CONNELL: Well, what's happening with the Optus situation, we're still none the wiser as to exactly how this blackout did happen, what exactly happened and how Optus will prevent it happening in the future. Joining me live is the Shadow Minister for Government Services and the digital economy, Paul Fletcher who was once upon a time the Communications Minister and worked for Optus well as well. So who better to talk to? What have you made of Optus and I guess the handling of this? No plans for compensation, apparently a reward for loyalty. Is this approach going to go down well and is it a fair one?

PAUL FLETCHER: Well, Tom clearly a difficult day for Optus yesterday, as the chief executive acknowledged. And I think it's understandable that the management team yesterday were very focused on how to get the network back up as quickly as possible. Obviously, not much has been said about what the root cause was. Optus did make some comments to other participants, industry participants that were reported in the industry press as saying that this was a problem with so-called route reflectors. Now I'm a lawyer and a politician, not an engineer but my rough decoding of that is that the telecommunications network works on internet protocols, so all the voice and data is transmitted as internet traffic that goes over routers made by well-known companies like Cisco and others. And those routers, as the name suggests, route the traffic to other points within the network of an individual company like Optus, but more importantly to other telcos, both domestically and internationally. The role of a route reflector is to speed up that process. It's a step in a chain. What seems to have happened, based upon what's been said publicly, is that there was some problem there. I don't know what the problem was, but what can happen is when an engineer is uploading a routeing table to a router, if there's an error there, because the volumes of traffic that are being moved across the network are so huge that error can cascade quite quickly. The volumes of traffic can bank up and then you start to get automatic failures or shutdowns in routers. Then it takes time to get that all going again. Now, I don't know if that is what happened. That's my very rough lawyer's decoding of what the limited amount that has been said publicly. But I think it's clear it was a very technical issue deep within the network management function at Optus.

TOM CONNELL: I mean, the question has to be, you know, I appreciate you trying to step us through that with more expertise than I have. I'd have to concede. But why isn't Optus giving an explanation? Why do we hear from the CEO? Oh, it's too complicated. Why can't they attempt to dumb it down for people like me and other customers and also taking a bit more responsibility around? You know, we've had businesses this morning that have clearly lost hundreds if not thousands of dollars of turnover. And Optus talk about reward for loyalty. That's not good enough, is it?

PAUL FLETCHER: Clearly this was very disappointing for customers. I know that disappointment will be felt by the team at Optus, but it was very disappointing. And of course telecommunications is the fundamental underpinning of the digital economy. All of the data that moves back and forth runs over the physical networks operated by Telstra, Optus Vodafone and others. Now network outages. We want them to happen as rarely as possible, but they do happen from time to time. For example, in the bushfires in 20 1920, at the peak on January the 1st 2020, there are about 150 mobile phone base stations Telstra, Optus, Vodafone off the air across New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia. That meant, for example, that Eftpos transactions couldn't be concluded. That was very problematic as people were trying to leave, say the holiday towns on the south coast of New South Wales following New South Wales Government instructions. But they couldn't buy food or fuel. So these episodes do happen from time to time. Just on the review that's been announced -

TOM CONNELL: Just on that, Yes. If I can just jump in just on that, one of the solutions being put forward is we need more scope to be able to do roaming so that in this situation, automatically, if one network is down, if the Optus networks down, that Optus phone would jump onto the Telstra one or whatever other one was happening at that time, that these outages do happen. Telstra had one last year, I think it was a similar length but happened all through the early hours and wasn't as widespread, is that it needs to be, you know another example for example vulnerability.

PAUL FLETCHER: Yeah. Another example is the Victorian country town of Warrnambool, quite a decent sized town, 20,000 people or so I think near the South Australian border. There was a fire at the Telstra exchange. This was this is going back I think 4 or 5 years. It was a fire at the Telstra exchange and services were interrupted for some months now. There was some, there were some workarounds, but it had a very significant impact. There are around the country a number of areas where the physical network connectivity, there's only one backbone fibre. Now there's fewer of those places than there used to be, but there are still some because our economy and our society has changed so much in just 10 or 20 years. We rely so much on the digital economy. Many of us are now operating on a cashless basis and so on. But all of this ultimately depends upon the physical networks. Now, by the way, on the question of whether roaming would have solved this, I doubt that it would, because this was a problem. Again, at the core of the network and the routers which direct where the traffic goes. If my interpretation of what the company has said publicly.

TOM CONNELL: Well, if it's right, yeah. But the question still goes to if it can help in another way. You know, the more backups we have, the better. Look, we'll discuss that.

PAUL FLETCHER: So backups are very important. And by the way. Indeed and one of the areas which has real potential is low earth orbiting satellites. And we have seen some of the telcos, including Optus, announce potential and I think actual deals with some of the low earth orbiting satellite operators. That could be a game changer for Australia because still nearly 70% of our landmass does not have terrestrial mobile coverage. If we are if we get to a point where with your ordinary mobile phone you can be sending and receiving text messages and even voice calls when you're in the outback, that will be hugely important. It will save lives and the indications that I've had from the telco sector are that does look like a real prospect.. So while it's natural that we focus on a pretty serious network outage, it is worth remembering that there's some good progress being made as well.

TOM CONNELL: Yeah, I know, well that sort of aspect of covering internet has been around for a while so I guess it gets easier, it gets cheaper is the hope. Just finally and briefly, already talked that Optus could lose contracts out of this, government ones, would that be a fair enough response? Are they unreliable after first the big hack and then this?

PAUL FLETCHER: The point I'd make is we've got competition in telecommunications. We have three separate mobile networks, Telstra, Optus, TPG, Vodafone. You know, going back 30 years we had a government owned monopoly. If you wanted a new service on you had to wait often three months or more. Now people have choice, that's good and it also means physical redundancy. So if we had only one network and that had failed that would have been very serious. The fact was people were able to use other networks but yes, in the marketplace people have choice and that was a deliberate policy intention of both Labor and Liberal parties in the 90s and that does give people options now.

TOM CONNELL: Paul Fletcher, appreciate your time, thank you.