Why we need a publicly-owned phone network

November 14, 2023
Mobile phone with no signal
Prioritising profits had led to worse service and accessibility. Image: Josh Adams

The nationwide outage of Australia’s second-largest telecommunications companies on November 8 should prompt a reconsideration of bringing these essential services under public ownership.

Optus’ outage, still not fully explained, impacted more than 10 million people, meaning they could not access phone networks, messaging, internet or mobile data for more than 12 hours.

Phone services went down at major hospitals, with the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority urging people to use non-Optus networks to dial Triple Zero.

It meant many were unable to contact emergency services, there were severe delays on Naarm/Melbourne’s train network and EFTPOS machines were out of action.

The outage also impacted Workforce Australia, leaving people on welfare unable to complete the required job searches and reporting to receive their payment. Only after the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union pointed this problem out on X were mutual obligations suspended.

Optus CEO Bayer Rosmarin blamed the outage on a “technical network fault” that “triggered a cascading failure that resulted in the shutdown of services”.

Rosmarin told the ABC she was “deeply sorry”, but Optus has only offered 200GB of data as compensation.

The outage comes a year after the Optus data breach exposed the personal data of 10 million people, including emails, dates of birth, full names, mobile numbers and drivers’ licence numbers.

The Communication Workers’ Union said the outage “comes just after Optus announced the slashing of over 200 jobs in the last two months … When you repeatedly slash jobs and outsource critical services to contracting companies — this is what happens”.

Federal communications minister Michelle Rowland said the outage would be reviewed and a Senate inquiry, led by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has been set up.

Hanson-Young said the inquiry “will look at what responsibility Optus has to protect the public, not just their profits” and “look into the role of the Commonwealth Government in ensuring Australians have access to essential, reliable telecommunications going forward”.

The ABC’s 7.30 reported on November 9 that another outage is likely as Optus and competitor Telstra continue to cut costs to make profits.

Telecommunications academic at RMIT Mark Gregory told the ABC that the Optus network is “not fit for purpose”. He said major phone companies have decided that maintaining secure infrastructure is too expensive.

Access to the internet and communications has become an integral part of day-to-day life. Mobile services are an essential service, not a luxury.

How can we ensure that mobile services are properly maintained, accessible and affordable?

Telstra, Australia’s biggest telecommunications company, was founded by the Commonwealth in 1901 to manage telephone, telegraph and postal services.

It was privatised in the 1990s by the Paul Keating-John Howard governments, leading to inefficiencies, job cuts and a falling quality of service.

Telecommunications consultant Paul Budde told the ABC that the current issues in the phone network go back to Telstra’s privatisation: “It's not just another company like a chocolate factory, no, this is integral to our society, to our economy and that was not recognised when Telstra was privatised and that situation has continued until now.”

Re-nationalisation of the telecommunications network must be on the agenda. With a transparent and democratically elected board, a re-nationalised network would prioritise better service and accessibility over profits; it would mean less signal “blackspots” and outages.

It is not a new or radical idea. Guardian columnist Owen Jones argued in 2014 that the case for nationalising Britain’s phone network was “pretty overwhelming”. He pointed out that companies build phone towers, but don’t share them with their competitors.

“That means that rather than having a network that reflects people’s needs, we are constantly zipping past [towers] we are locked out of ... Profit is prioritised over building an effective network that gives all citizens access.”

Attempts have been made here to force companies to share towers, but this would be much easier with a government-run network.

Jones also highlighted that phone companies make their profits out of government funded research, including GPS, touch screens, speech recognition and even the internet.

“These companies aren’t the result of some individual entrepreneur in the garage. It was all state-funded from the start,” economics professor Mariana Mazzucato told The Guardian.

Federal governments have been slow to adapt to rapidly changing technology, with the infamously inadequate roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN) a case in point.

Both major parties were considering selling-off the NBN in 2020, although Rowland said in July that privatisation was off the table.

The issues plaguing the country’s two biggest telecommunications companies are the result of prioritising profits above all else.

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