Failing forward

The national outage of Optus’ broadband and mobile networks was widely reported to wreak havoc across Australia, resulting in 10 million unhappy customers and major operational disruption for metro rail, hospitals, and major banks.

Impacts on regional and remote communities drew significantly less attention from the media than urban areas. Reports have emerged, however, of regional Optus customers flocking to their local McDonalds for free Wi-Fi and queuing at Telstra shopfronts to switch providers.

More sobering is the fact that if this outage had occurred one week prior–amid catastrophic fires burning across Queensland’s interior–an inability to coordinate response efforts via Optus mobile networks could have threatened lives.

“… if this outage had occurred one week prior – amid catastrophic fires burning across Queensland’s interior – an inability to coordinate response efforts via Optus mobile networks could have threatened lives.”

Fire coordination

Interruptions to services are common in remote areas

While the outage came as a rude shock to many Australians, interruptions to broadband and mobile services are not uncommon outside of Australia’s major cities and regional centres.

Rural communities regularly endure interruptions to both mobile and broadband service, from congestion and slow speeds during peak periods to complete telecommunications isolation for days and even weeks.

As just one example, in January this year the Northern Peninsula Area and most of the Torres Strait in Far North Queensland experienced a 4-day outages of Telstra’s fixed line and mobile services, resulting in residents being unable to access cash from ATMs or call 000.

The comparative unreliability of remote telecommunications services is underpinned by aging infrastructure, extreme weather conditions, dependency on remote energy supplies, and higher incidences of flood, cyclone, and fire.

Normalised neglect of remote telecommunications failures

The regularity of interruption to telecommunications services in remote areas can necessitate consumers purchasing additional hardware and services to create redundancy. This ensures business, education, healthcare, and crisis response can continue if the primary connection fails.

For example, as well as having NBN satellite or fixed wireless broadband, many remote households ‘layer up’ with a second (or more) connection, such as 4G mobile broadband (where is available) or Starlink (low orbit satellite or LEO).

Mitigating the impacts of unreliable telecommunications services in this way places an unfair financial and administrative burden on remote consumers. And those least able to access and afford this redundancy are likely to be the most vulnerable, such as First Nations communities and people living with disability.

These redundancy practices normalise remote broadband and mobile outages, keeping them largely invisible to most Australians.

It is a bitter irony that telcos themselves are not required to have failover options; other essential utilities like water and energy are more strongly regulated than telecommunications.

Failing forward: Holding telcos to account

The Optus outage has drawn fierce attention to the ubiquity and fragility of mobile and broadband connectivity as an essential service for all Australians. Pleasingly, a federal government inquiry into the Optus outage will include all major telcos and ask broader questions, not just about what happened this time, but how we can prevent it happening in the future..

This enquiry presents a rare opportunity to assess the impacts and possible redundancy options for outages in every part of our county—remote and urban—concurrently. On this occasion, remote Australia can be included in the nation’s strategic redirection for telecommunications development, rather than being auxiliary to it.  

Communications Minister Rowland’s forthcoming review of the Universal Service Obligation—which awards Telstra $300 million per year to ensure all Australians have access to a fixed phone services and payphones—is a further opportunity to shake up the telcos and hold them more accountable for the essential services they provide, particularly in remote Australia.

Redundancy and sovereignty in remote telecommunications infrastructure

I recently wrote that Australia’s last-mile, market-led approach to remote telecommunications development will, by definition, reach our most remote and vulnerable populations last. A new approach is needed to ensure equity is “baked in” to new policies, programs, and investments in the wake of the Optus outage.

The Commonwealth’s triennial Regional Telecommunications Review in 2024 will no doubt shed light on the role emerging technologies such as 5G and low orbit (LEO) satellite can play in providing more robust and equitable services. Excitingly, this may include enterprise-grade, low-latency broadband satellite connections and 100% mobile coverage across our vast continent.

However, given their experiences last week, Australians should expect the Commonwealth to be cautious about continuing to rely on telcos and market-led solutions to digitally future proof our nation.

Despite the lure of LEOs sweeping remote Australian communities and businesses, the Commonwealth must maintain at least arms-length sovereignty of the infrastructure—terrestrial or satellite—underpinning our baseline voice and data services.

If it fails to do so, a catastrophic failure of Starlink or OneWeb satellites, or corporate collapse of these multinational corporations, may supersede last week’s calamity.


Dr Amber Marshall is a Lecturer in Management at Griffith University. Her research focuses on digital inclusion and rural development. Drawing on management and communication sciences, she employs socio-technical theoretical perspectives to investigate how individuals, organisations, and communities become digitally connected and adopt digital technologies. Her research interests also include digital AgTech and data, digital inclusion ecosystems, remote telecommunications infrastructure (both technical and social), and digital skills and capability development.