Fiber Optics Fun In the Land of Oz

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Last week, a fiber optic cable was severed causing a major land line, mobile phone and internet shutdown for more than one million people in Queensland and Northern NSW. Automatic teller machines and Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale (EFTPOS) services were also affected. Needless to say, people were not amused.

According to various news reports, the telecommunications company Optus's system went down at 0753 (AEST) when a backhoe operator severed its fiber optic cable. Service was restored about four hours later, but not before major problems appeared, such as at Brisbane Airport where domestic and international flights were delayed as everything reverted to manual mode.

A back-up system was activated through an inland network, but because of a system card failure the night before, the back-up system wasn't available.

Optus called the outage a "one in a million" event. What's more, Optus said it believed the problem could not have been averted.

"We can't design a network or build a network on those one in a million chances," an Optus spokesperson said.

What made the story more "entertaining" - at least to those observers from afar - was the "who was to blame for the cut" game that immediately began playing out. The outage was estimated to cost customers millions of dollars, many of whom may be eligible for compensation from someone. The trick is determining who that someone is.

The Gold Coast City Council initially denied it was involved and blamed the Queensland State Government for the incident. It later had to admit that the fiber optic cable was indeed severed on a council's "pumps and pipes" project that was not yet officially part of the huge Queensland $9 billion water grid project.

However, the City Council then added that checks failed to reveal the location of the cable before it was severed by the backhoe operator. It implied that the telco Optus was at fault, not them.

This pass the blame gambit got Optus angry. It soon released photos showing the cable cut was about 2 meters from a large white warning sign that indicated one of its cables was in the area.

The City Council still maintained, even after the photos were published, that they had done all the proper checks and the cable wasn't where it was expected to be.

A report is scheduled to be released later this week with more details about what happened and why, and who likely will end up getting stuck paying compensation.

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