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Network outages 'normal': Optus

Optus this week claimed the 3G mobile outages it had been suffering were normal and every telecommunications carrier would be having similar issues.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

Optus this week claimed the 3G mobile outages it had been suffering were normal and every telecommunications carrier would be having similar issues.


Andrew Buay
(Credit: Optus)

"There have been a few incidents — which is actually quite normal for any operator and any vendor — that the new software loads under some conditions or locations don't behave the way you expect them to, despite having done very extensive testing before you bring them into the network," Andrew Buay, Optus managing director of products and delivery told ZDNet.com.au this week.

"It's quite normal," he added.

He said there had been a lot of negative media recently on whether Optus had a reliable wireless broadband network and the level of congestion on the network, but he believed that the media had fed on itself, making a big issue out of something every carrier experienced.

"I suppose mainly because we have been in the limelight, every little thing that does happen gets a lot more visibility, but you know it does happen with every operator and network in various sizes and frequencies," he said.

The attention started in July with a cable cut by non-Optus contractors that resulted in Optus customers in Queensland having phone and internet services go down. There was a considerable amount of backlash, especially from business customers and the government, although Buay did not place this outage in the same box as those which were to follow because the catalyst for the event had been an external source.

With the public eye already on Optus, the carrier experienced a series of glitches in August which affected 3G data in Melbourne, NSW, the ACT and Queensland as well as voice services in parts of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, due to software upgrade issues. Experts from the carrier's network vendor, Nokia Siemens Networks, were called in from Finland to help assess the situation.

Meanwhile, the iPhone which had come into stores in July and which Optus had sold a "disproportionate" number of times according to Buay, was causing complaints of its own. Optus was named as having the slowest speeds for the iPhone worldwide in a Wired survey, sparking long discussions on the carrier's iPhone performance on online forums.

Amongst these whispers of congestion over the network, Optus also experienced a 3G data outage in North Sydney and St Leonards.

To add fuel to speculation of Optus' network woes, at the start of this month, the carrier reduced the amount of data customers could download on their prepaid wireless broadband plans. This had followed the carrier's announcement that it was suspending sales of its Wireless Fusion product to "ensure we deliver an optimum experience to our customers using the product". Rumours ran wild that the network was overloaded.

The carrier then experienced problems with porting, as customers trying to move numbers to and from the carrier found their accounts stranded for days.

Last week 3G services were also disrupted at one base station following a capacity upgrade on the Optus/Vodafone 3G network at Bilgola.

Buay acknowledged the spate of incidents, which have not all been included in this list, and divided the concerns into congestion worries and outages.

He said considering Optus' aggressive expansion of its 3G network from covering 60 per cent of the population to 98 per cent of the population, and the upgrades that required, it was normal for some problems to occur.

Buay would not go into details on what the Finnish experts from Nokia Siemens Network had found when they arrived to help with the outage spanning the eastern side of the country, saying only it was like a normal "audit" of Optus' processes such as load testing before implementing upgrades to the network.

"You can go into the nth level of detail on this sort of technical issue, but our commitment is to build a robust, reliable network," he said.

As for congestion, he said it was a problem all carriers had to face.

"Because we have had very good take-up of the wireless broadband it's very typical that in certain locations during certain times of the day, you would have a bit heavier usage loading on the network," he said. "That's quite typical and as an operator, we proactively take actions to upgrade the network elements [such as backhaul]."

"Typically at any time the operator may have 3 to 5 per cent of their sites which have some level of congestion," he added.

I suppose mainly because we have been in the limelight every little thing that does happen gets a lot more visibility

Optus' Andrew Buay

He didn't believe any congestion problems could be blamed on the number of iPhone units the carrier had sold. "The number of subscribers and their usage profile in the scheme of our 7 million subscriber base is not an issue which has impacted our network," he said.

"As to whether the iPhone experience was because of the Optus network, I think you are aware that when iPhone first launched they had issues with their antenna and the operating system and it impacted all 2,100MHz networks globally, it wasn't just Optus individually," he said.

Ovum analyst Nathan Burley said there was some truth in the carrier's belief that the media hype had given it a worse report card than it deserved, but he said that there were problems. "There seem to be some issues, especially in the area of backhaul," he said.

He said Optus was seeing the consequences of entering the 3G game late and playing catch up. Telstra had the advantage of moving early, Burley said, which gave it the time to iron out its issues, while Optus as the latecomer has had to grin and bear it. "There's no doubt that they were late to the 3G game and that's cost them," he said.

As for the iPhone, Burley agreed with Buay on one point. "They are correct that a lot of the problems Optus had were replicated across the globe." However, Optus didn't get off scot-free in his opinion. "There's no doubt also that some of the issues were tied to the Optus network," he said.

Whether the underlying problems were to be expected or abnormally bad, Burley believed Optus' media persona has taken a vicious beating. "I just think this has been a PR disaster," he said.

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