Optus offers free data but customers could seek thousands in compensation

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Optus is offering aggrieved customers a free data top-up after Wednesday’s unprecedented outage, but the industry watchdog says she is prepared to force the telecommunications company into large compensation payments if it refuses to settle customers’ claims.

Embattled CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin will have to front a Senate inquiry into the 16-hour outage, which on Wednesday disconnected close to 10 million customers, while also answering to a separate government inquiry announced by Communications Minister Michelle Rowland.

Optus is offering free data to customers after its outage.Credit: Louie Douvis

The company says it will give customers on its post-paid mobile plans 200 gigabytes of bonus data and prepaid customers unlimited data on weekends until the end of the year, in what managing director Matt Williams claimed was more meaningful to customers than the value of a day’s outage, which he said was about “$1 per day in terms of the typical plans our customers buy”.

But Optus’ offer was immediately slammed by Greens communications spokesman Sarah Hanson-Young, who said the “PR play” was not enough to get Optus off the hook, and tech analyst Foad Fadaghi, who said “knee-jerk offers” could prompt more customers to ditch the business.

Bayer Rosmarin said she would co-operate with the federal inquiries.

“We’re definitely happy to work with any inquiries,” Bayer Rosmarin said. “Our objective is to have a network that’s up 100 per cent of the time, and we’re keen for any learnings and eager to assist.”

Kelly Bayer Rosmarin will have to front a Senate inquiry into the outage that caused widespread disruption on Wednesday.Credit: Michael Quelch

She revealed the root cause of the failure was “a network event” that “triggered a cascading failure which resulted in the shutdown of services to our customers”.

Optus executive Gladys Berejiklian, the former NSW premier, said she was “deeply sorry” for the effect the outage had on “all of our business customers of all sizes”.

“Obviously, we’re asking all of our business customers irrespective of their size to contact either their direct account manager, or else our business care line, and we’re going through each customer’s concerns and we’ll continue to do that,” she said.

Telecommunications industry ombudsman Cynthia Gebert said her office could force payments of up to $100,000 for a business that could prove a loss and up to $1500 for individuals with a claim.

Telecommunications industry ombudsman Cynthia Gebert said: “If we need to take a strong line with Optus to get the right outcome for their customers, that’s what we will do.”

“If you can see a customer has clearly been impacted, we’d be encouraging them to really own the complaint and deal with it,” she said.

“But if we need to take a strong line with Optus to get the right outcome for their customers, that’s what we will do.”

Government figures are fuming about the way Optus has communicated about the outage.

Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones said on Thursday that the communications minister was forced to “fill the gaps” as Bayer Rosmarin took hours to make her first public comments on Wednesday while essential services such as rail networks and hospital hotlines shut down across the country.

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan announced her government would review its relationship with Optus after the outage halted Melbourne’s trains and blocked phone services at 11 hospitals, while NSW Premier Chris Minns urged the company to pay generous compensation.

“They’re going to have to come to the table and do something big, in my view, to keep their customer base and to prove to everybody that they are a reliable telecommunication service,” Minns said.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar described Optus’ response as a “clown show” and predicted many of its 400,000 business customers would want financial compensation.

“Optus needs to do the right thing,” he said.

The Greens’ Senate inquiry into the incident, which was supported by the Coalition and opposed by Labor, ensures the public fallout will drag on for Optus.

“We will force the Optus CEO and the executives of the giant telco to front up and explain what’s happened and what they are going to do to consider the losses, the impact that this has had on millions of Australians and what they’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hanson-Young said.

The Coalition secured a deal to ensure the inquiry would also examine the federal government’s response.

Rowland announced her department would launch its own review into the incident.

“I think it’s really important to recognise that Australians, being reasonable people, understand that things sometimes go wrong, but they also have an expectation that large corporations will do the right thing by them when they suffer loss or inconvenience,” she said.

Opposition communications spokesman David Coleman said the government had been “clear as mud” on compensation and called on Rowland to explain publicly how people should access payments.

Legal expert and chief executive of the Cyber Security Cooperation Research Centre Rachael Falk said major corporations and government services such as train networks and hospitals could have clauses in their contracts with Optus that would force the telco to pay for damages.

“In many of the big contracts with government clients or big corporations, there are what is called service-level agreements around time the network is up and time networks are down, and that can result in damages being paid depending on the nature of those contracts to the customers who are impacted,” she said.

Small businesses are also looking at their compensation rights. Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief executive Luke Achterstraat said it was the main question on the minds of organisations.

“Some small businesses are reporting they’ve lost as much as $10,000,” he said. “It’s not a question of if they get compensation, it’s a question of how much.”

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