It was landlines or nothing for most of northern WA on Thursday. (ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)
Businesses are demanding improvements to phone and internet systems in Australia’s north after a 20-hour outage shut down retail systems, delayed flights, and slowed police responses to home burglaries.
- Telstra has blamed an unidentified third party for damaging a key communications cable
- The damage knocked out mobile and internet services, as well as some landlines, across much of northern WA
- Residents without a landline were unable to contact emergency services for 20 hours
Telstra says a ‘third party’ was responsible for damaging the fibre optic cable near Port Hedland in Western Australia’s north on Thursday afternoon, knocking out the 3G and 4G mobile networks across the Kimberley, along with some landline and broadband services, affecting about 50,000 people.
In Broome, that meant queues of people at the handful of ATMs still working, and pubs and shops erecting ‘cash only’ signs during one of the busiest weeks of the tourist season.
The outage also saw at least two flights delayed by several hours.
Broome Chamber of Commerce president Peter Taylor said it was unacceptable that there had been two significant outages in the past year.
“I won’t say [it was] devastating to businesses, but it would have had a material effect on them because these days people don’t carry cash very much, so basically you’ve got shops that couldn’t make sales,” he said.
“If these outages are going to keep happening, then I think they really need to look at an alternative way of moving the data around, because it’s just unacceptable in this day and age.”
Telstra did not make anyone available for interview, but said in a statement that crews worked through the night to complete the majority of the repair work, which was needed after a third party dug a series of holes that damaged the fibre optic cable.
Art of conversation revived
One unexpected benefit was a flurry of conversation and interaction, which bar staff said they had not seen since smartphones started to dominate the social dynamic.
Mangrove Hotel general manager Glyn Batten said it was a refreshing change.
“There’s absolutely no question that people were actually talking to each other and not using their phones, and that came in as a comment from a lot of guests,” he said.
“They were actually having to sit there and actually speak to each other, which is an interesting scenario in this day and age where people often sit their glued to their telephone.”
Glyn Batten, the general manager of the Mangrove Hotel in Broome. (ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)
No beer without cash
But Mr Batten said the delay was frustrating and he estimated the hotel had lost about 10 per cent of the day’s expected takings.
“Lunch was a bit of a difficult situation because people hadn’t realised it was cash only,” he said.
“Realistically, by four or five o’clock, the town had very quickly come to understand they couldn’t get a beer unless they got cash.
“I think people understand when the technology is not working, it’s not working, and there’s not much we can do about it.”
Flight delays, unreported crime
The outage had more serious implications at airports, delaying flights for up to two hours while staff checked passengers in manually and gave handwritten boarding passes.
Emergency services, including police, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and hospitals, held urgent planning meetings to ensure people could call for help in an emergency.
The SOS call service meant people could dial Triple 0, but were not able to phone the hospital or local police station, as is normal practice to report non-life-threatening crimes.
While no major incidents occurred, Broome police officer in charge Les Andrews said the outages delayed the response to more than 10 reported burglaries.
Police in Broome say some residents didn’t report burglaries and break-ins until the next day. (ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)
“It was a busy night — there were a number of burglaries that impacted the community,” Senior Sergeant Andrews said.
“It doesn’t necessarily have an impact on the investigation, but it would have provided a better opportunity to deploy resources in a timely manner.
“Although it was frustrating, we were still able to provide the service as best we could.”
With the phones now working, he said police were expecting to receive more reports today.
As of Friday morning, Telstra was reporting the majority of mobile services were back up and running, with final repairs scheduled for Friday night.
The telco said it was too early to comment on what discussions had been had with the mysterious ‘third party’ that caused the outage, but advised affected businesses could contact them on 13 22 00 to register for compensation.