Major telco outage leaves millions of Australians disconnected

Communication minister advises businesses to “keep receipts”

Australia's second-largest telco, Singapore-owned Optus, experienced an outage beginning Wednesday around 4am Sydney and Melbourne time that left millions nationwide without phone or internet access – either mobile or terrestrial.

The outage also affected transport as Melbourne trains were temporarily inoperable and network users had no internet with which to call ride-shares or taxis.

Even many who could get a ride found themselves without the ability to pay as EFTPOS terminals were also down – and well, who carries cash anymore?

The disruptions didn't stop there. Hospitals also had their landlines impacted, as did Forest Fire Management Victoria.

"We're aware of an issue impacting Optus mobile and nbn [national broadband network] services and are working to restore services as quickly as possible. We understand connectivity is important and apologize for any inconvenience caused,” Optus announced early into the outage.

The telco encouraged customers who needed to contact emergency services to use a mobile line to call, as landlines would not work but alternative carriers would be available for emergency roaming, or "camping."

Internet watchdog Netblocks tracked Optus's internet services as being partially restored in the eighth hour of the outage, but the mobile network remained down. Optus has since detailed that both services are being gradually restored – but it would take hours to fully recover.

CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin told Australia's public broadcaster the root cause of the incident is not yet known, however there is no indication it is linked to a cyber attack.

There is speculation that the outage may have been triggered by a software update that fed in incorrect router information, which could have triggered a Border Gateway Protocol prefix flood. While there has been no word from Optus to confirm whether or not this is the case, information from Cloudflare indicates that BGP "route" requests were hovering at a normal level until they suddenly surged at about 4am – right when the Optus outage started.

Members of the Australian government have had some stern words for the carrier. South Australian premier Peter Malinauskas declared Optus had "let their customers down" and that the South Australian government was considering switching critical services to other companies.

Communications minister Michelle Rowland has urged transparency and timeliness from Optus. She called the incident a "deep fault" and advised small businesses to "keep receipts" so that any recourse available could be accessed.

Last year Optus experienced a cyber attack that exposed enough information for threat attackers to open bank accounts in the names of its victims. The telco received criticism for not proactively communicating the breach to the victims.

The troubled telco boasts 10.2 million customers, which equates to around 40 percent of Australia’s population. It is a subsidiary of Singaporean telecom company Singtel.

Singapore experienced its own outage this month that also affected economic continuity when a datacenter overheated and backup systems failed resulting in 2.5 million thwarted bank transactions.

Singaporean minister Alvin Tan called on consumers and businesses to provide alternative means of payment as to avoid disruption in these types of scenarios.

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), the ongoing decline of cash has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic, with cash on the continent accounting for only 13 percent of payments in 2022. This assessment has sparked speculation that a transition to a cashless society is inevitable and imminent.

But as many smug Australian residents have expressed, this Optus outage could inspire a cash revival – or at least a digital-only rethink. ®

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