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Telstra outage fires warning to corporate Australia

Mobile network interruption shows how dependent Australian organisations are on national supplier

Telstra’s recent mobile network outage revealed the extent to which Australian enterprises rely on such connections, but the challenge will be magnified greatly when the internet of things (IoT) reaches peak deployment.

By the end of the decade, it has been forecast that up to 50 million IoT devices will be installed Australia-wide.

The mobile network outage, which lasted several hours in early February, embarrassed Telstra, which prides itself in having the most robust and reliable mobile network.

The outage, which affected a significant number of its 16.7 million customers, was triggered when one of the nodes directing traffic suffered a technical fault and was taken offline.

The incident was a wake-up call for all businesses about the extent to which they rely on a single mobile communications network, and may prompt a rethink about business continuity planning, especially as organisations gear up for IoT deployments.

Any lack of connection for IoT devices and sensors could result in a significant fallout from even relatively brief outages. Analyst Budde Communications has said there could be as many as 50 million IoT-connected devices installed in Australia by 2020.

Tim Janes, principal of Risk Management Design and a board member of the Business Continuity Institute, said today’s businesses are as reliant on mobile networks as they are on the electricity or water utilities. “But you can’t back it up with a generator or water storage,” he noted.

Janes said businesses need to understand their reliance on mobile communications networks and identify where the greatest harm might be caused by a failure, in order to prioritise their response.

Analysis would also find where there was tolerance for some degree of disruption, and identify which processes could be tackled manually in the event of a network outage, he added.

“It sounds like common sense, but in the heat of the moment it can be difficult. Thinking this through in advance gives you a head start.”

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Janes said that for some IoT deployments, particularly safety systems, it might be necessary to establish multiple network connectivity so failover to an alternative network was possible.

However, he noted that it was possible for some IoT devices to store data for a while before it had to be downloaded, so they might be unaffected during relatively brief outages.

Telstra said the February outage was caused by human error: proper procedures were not followed, leading to customers being disconnected. When people tried to reconnect, it created crippling congestion on the network, said the telco.

It did not affect everyone, but many businesses were unable to connect to suppliers and customers, or take payments using smartphones and tablets connected over the mobile network.

Incredibly disappointed

Telstra chief operations officer Kate McKenzie said the company was “incredibly disappointed” by the outage.

“As soon as we identified what had occurred, we worked to address the fault and take action to bring customers back online as quickly as possible,” she said. “In doing so, we prioritised voice services, and when these were back online, we started adding data services.”

McKenzie also announced that as a form of recompense, Telstra would offer a day’s free data to all its mobile customers on Valentine’s Day.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) responded swiftly, however, saying that one day of free love would not compensate all users for losses caused by the outage.

Because the outage lasted less than a day, customers are not be able to leverage Telstra’s Customer Services Guarantee, according to ACCON, but it suggested there could be avenues under Australian consumer law for businesses to seek compensation if they could prove their loss.

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