More than 10 million Australians were exposed to the pitfalls of modern technology on Wednesday when services provided by Optus, the country’s second-biggest internet and mobile-phone firm, collapsed for nine hours.
The near-total service blackout was a lesson in the risk for a society that has moved almost entirely online. With 40% of internet services provided by the company, the prolonged outage created confusion and inconvenience for half the country.
Millions could not pay for goods, get medical care, book rides, or even make phone calls, because a technical breakdown hit businesses, payment and banking systems, disrupted hospitals and sent transport networks into chaos.
For disability pensioner Chris Rogers, who needs painkillers for a knee injury that prevents him from working, the problem became apparent when he drove 30 minutes to the pharmacist and his electronic prescription could not be filled.
“Because of the outage it won’t load,” Rogers said while he was waiting at the pharmacist for the internet to return. “Reception is flat out. It’s crazy, I’ve never seen such chaos.”
In the three years to 2022, Australian cash transactions halved to 16% as pandemic restrictions sped up a longer-term trend toward so-called contactless payments, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia. One-quarter of the country’s doctor appointments are online or by phone, government data shows.
“We are now so very reliant, because of Covid, on tele-health and also electronic messaging systems,” Michael Clements, rural chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said.
“The reality is many people have just missed out on care.”
Singapore-owned firm accused of sluggish response
Optus, which is owned by Singapore Telecommunications, gave no explanation for the outage except to say it was investigating it. Most of its services were cut in the early morning and not restored till the afternoon.
Until then, even taking a walk became more difficult, at least for people who needed directions.
“I’m looking for a bank, and when you can’t go onto your phone and Google pretty much you are lost,” Angela Ican, a security officer in Sydney’s central business district, said.
An office worker from Sydney said he could not get into his building because the door required an internet-connected smartphone application to unlock.
Small businesses owners said they either relied on regular customers to pay them back once internet was restored, or gave customers an option to pay cash or come back later.
“We are a A$4,000-A$5,000 ($2,600-$3,200) a day business and we’ve lost about A$1,000 in coffee sales this morning,” said Roderick Geddes, owner of Pirrama Park Kiosk in Sydney, which was unable to process electronic payments.
For Optus, the outage could be expensive, if many people opt to shift to another provider seen as more reliable.
This is the second major drama the company has faced recently. In September last year, a similar number of people had their personal information and other sensitive data stolen in a high-tech hack by cyber criminals.
‘Failed to warn public’
It also created another barrage of negative publicity for the company, which some media accused of failing to promptly warn the public.
“Rather than alert Canberra or the community, Optus once again decided to keep shtum for hours as a bewildered nation worked out for itself where the problem stemmed from,” ABC business editor Ian Verrender wrote.
“Bizarrely, the company’s senior management, led by Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, has yet to grasp the importance of timely communication with its customers and anyone else impacted by a network breakdown, even in the most extreme cases,” he said.
“Instead, it appears to operate under the mantra: say nothing, admit to nothing and it will just all eventually go away.”
Given Optus’ sluggish response, there is already speculation that the latest “technical network issue” will play out badly for both the company and its CEO.
- Reuters with additional input and editing by Jim Pollard