Kate Emery: Optus’ outage was as close as we’re going to get to a real-life post-apocalyptic scenario

Kate Emery
The Nightly
4 Min Read
CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin says her stepping down "is in the best interest of Optus". (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)
CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin says her stepping down "is in the best interest of Optus". (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

It’s a question many will have idly considered: what would you do in the event of a zombie apocalypse?

This week the country got a preview and it was more terrifying than anything you’d see on The Walking Dead.

In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it seems, we’ll mostly be staring at our useless phones, smashing kids’ piggy banks for enough cash to buy a coffee and abusing retail workers in the misplaced belief that a guy in an Optus polo can fix what even the telco’s top dog was still describing days later as a “very technical network engineering issue”.

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A very technical network engineering issue is, I think, what you say when you have no bloody idea but your annual salary has six zeroes attached to it.

Optus’ near day-long outage was as close as we’re going to get to a real-life post-apocalyptic scenario — at least the kind we can crack jokes about afterwards.

Nearly half the country was unable to call, text or go online for about 12 hours, small businesses were unable to use EFTPOS, Melbourne trains stopped running and thwarted commuters who wanted to catch an Uber instead couldn’t use the app. Optus landlines couldn’t even be used to call triple zero.

After last year’s high-profile data breach, Optus chief executive Kelly Bayer Rosmarin needed this like a zombie needs a salad sandwich.

She’s staring down calls for her to go, while Optus faces a senate inquiry, the potential loss of government contracts and, judging by the crowds at some Telstra and Vodafone shops, a bottleneck of customers at the exit door.

An apology, in the form of free data, was almost as warmly received as the Optus bills that pinged into some customers’ inboxes within minutes of service resuming.

There’s an entire industry around digital detoxes, which involve punters handing over their phones — and money — for the right to disconnect on holiday. Optus’ enforced digital detox was free but it was also a hell of a lot less fun.

That doesn’t mean this whole unprecedented fiasco wasn’t what a certain kind of person likes to call a teachable moment.

Anyone who relies on smart technology in their home — from air-con to lights — should consider how they would cope in the event of a failure.

It was a wake-up call about the downsides of the sprint towards a cashless society and our dependence on the black mirrors in our pockets.

The only truly happy people during the outage, other than Telstra shareholders, were the analogues among us, who fished out their cash with a bloody tongue from biting down on the I told you so just dying to get out.

It was also a cautionary tale about crisis management.

In Optus’ defence, it’s a fair question to ask: how do you communicate with your customers when they can’t get online or receive calls or text messages?

I couldn’t tell you — there aren’t enough zeroes after my salary, apparently, my fellow columnist Ben Harvey also demands paying and only part of that is danger pay for his latest jaunt to Rockingham — but I can tell you that some half-baked statements and a surprise appearance by Ms Rosmarin on ABC Sydney radio six hours after the outage started is probably not it.

What matters now is what we learn from this, if anything.

Cybersecurity experts say this is an unpleasant reminder of the need for fail-safes to be built into essential infrastructure and a warning about the risk of having critical services dependent on a single internet connection.

Small businesses who missed out on a day of sales should be working on their backup plan for a future outage. Social Manna café in Victoria Park, for example, avoided disaster because its EFTPOS terminal has a duel sim, so they could pivot to a different communications provider.

Anyone who relies on smart technology in their home — from air-con to lights — should consider how they would cope in the event of a failure.

Do we all take the next logical step and become doomsday preppers, except instead of hoarding tinned beans, guns and Geiger counters we’ll be stashing second sim cards, rolls of twenties and instruction guides for pre-mobile methods of communication?

Maybe. At the very least, A Dummies Guide to Carrier Pigeons would prove helpful as a weapon should the next crisis involve literal zombies and not just people acting like they’re in need of a brain.

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