Telstra Still Unclear Over E-mail Outages

Weeks after blaming e-mail service disruptions on the Swen worm and promising to fast track a program of improvements to its BigPond Internet service Telstra still can’t definitively say what caused the widespread service disruptions.

Nor can it say exactly how many customers were affected — or even whether it was the whole of is broadband customer base — and whether any of those customers permanently lost e-mails.

Telstra’s Managing Director for Regulatory, Corporate & Human Relations Bill Scales told a recent Senate Estimates hearing that Telstra was now able to “definitely” say to a “99 per cent” certainly that it “thinks” blame for the outage can be sheeted home to the Swen virus, and that it is “reasonably sure” the virus affected users in Australia more than it affected a number of other countries, for a range of reasons. But “we are 99 per cent sure that we have the issue tagged,” he said.

And he said whether customers had permanently lost e-mails depended on the configuration of their individual computers, the arrangements that people had with their own ISPs and the extent to which e-mails that were delayed for a particular period of time were then simply not delivered. “So that will vary,” he said.

Telstra last month promised to bring forward planned capacity upgrades and enhanced customer services such as a new e-mail platform by early next year in the wake of severe e-mail service disruptions. Telstra also promised measures to augment specialist help desk resources, improve call centre processes for BigPond customers and introduce a browser-based customer information service to communicate to customers in the wake of the disruptions.

It also pledged to provide all BigPond customers with a two-week rebate on their monthly service bill, along with access to free antivirus, firewall and spam filters, to help compensate users for the service disruptions.

Press estimates of the numbers affected by the disruptions varied widely, from 10,000 for three days through to 1.2 million people, or all broadband customers. Asked how many were affected, Scales could only tell Senators “It was a large number, not the smaller number. Whether it was the whole of our broadband customer base I am not able to definitively tell you. But we would not deny, and we have never tried to deny — as you know — that a large number of our customers were affected.

“. . . have a large number of our customers been affected? Yes. Have we apologised to those customers? Certainly. Have we made it clear that we will put capacity into place in the future? Yes, we have.”

Scales conceded Telstra’s explanations for the problem had changed over time. Questioned by Labor Senator Kate Lundy about an article which quoted a Telstra spokesman as initially blaming the problem on the fact that Telstra had moved about half of its 1.5 million BigPond and WebMail customers to new software, that no more than “tens of thousands” of customers would have been affected, and that “the software problems had been resolved and 90 per cent of e-mails were “getting, through first time around” Scales explained Telstra was learning about the issue as it went along.

He said Telstra had gone through a number of iterations of its understanding of the real problem, and it had taken up to 10 days before it was able to fully understand what was happening within the system.

“From our perspective, this was something that we had not seen before. We had not seen a situation where, for all intents and purposes, we were getting such an increase in traffic — inexplicably — across the whole of our network. It is true that it took us a little while to really understand what the nature of that change in the volume of traffic was. We were doing our very best to keep people informed. It is true that when we would have made that statement that that was our best assessment at the time. As it turned out, it was not exactly what was happening to us, but we were trying to communicate the best we could at the time.”

Telstra Manager, Data Business Development Dennis Mullane told the hearing Telstra has now adopted a two-pronged approach to resolving the issue — both recovering capacity within the system — where old data has been stored and has been there for a long time, and adding additional capacity.

“As part of the announcement that the CEO made recently, we will be adding substantially more capacity as we proceed through this year. At the time the virus hit we had about 20 per cent headroom. We have substantially more than that now,” he said.