Marayke Jonkers first realised something was wrong when all her bedroom lights turned on early in the morning. All the devices in the Paralympian’s home are smart – they need the internet to work. When the internet went down, the lights went on and she couldn’t turn them off.
Wednesday’s Optus outage left her trapped in bed, unable to contact a support worker, with no access to food or water, and no idea what was going on. Jonkers – a paratriathlete, a Paralympic swimmer and the co-vice-president of People with Disability Australia (PWDA) – couldn’t get support until Thursday morning.
Losing the phone service itself was bad enough. People were unable to call loved ones, or call for help.
Then there was the effect of the internet outage. It cost businesses thousands of dollars, train services stopped running, banking was affected.
And in homes around Australia, smart devices were no longer so smart.
Most Australian homes have at least one connected device, and Telsyte predicts they’ll have an average of 33 connected devices by 2026.
People manage their homes through voice assistants. Televisions, lights and music systems, while heating and cooling can be controlled via the internet.
There were tales of automatic cat feeders, fish pond filtration systems and watering systems grinding to a halt.
The impact on people who depend on internet-assisted technology went well beyond that. While some systems can be operated manually if necessary, and there is emergency access for some people, those like Jonkers were left to fend for themselves.
“I couldn’t get out of bed. I woke up and was having a bad day,” she says, adding that when she has a bad day she would usually contact a support worker who could help her with mobility or other domestic tasks. But that wasn’t possible on Wednesday.
“I didn’t have anything to eat. I didn’t get washed. I didn’t make it to appointments because I couldn’t call anyone. I only found out what was happening about 3pm when notifications started turning up … but I still couldn’t ring or text.
“If you’re elderly, if you have a disability, you’re relying on voice to text, or on screen readers … all those things that require the internet.
“It is dangerous, and it’s not safe, and it’s definitely not pleasant.”
Jonkers and PWDA are calling for backup systems that allow access to a different telecommunications network in the same way people can if the power goes out.
They want to ensure companies take the needs of people with disability into account in their responses to future outages.
Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, a Flinders University adjunct senior lecturer and Shuttleworth telecommunications fellow, avoids smart technology in his own home as he pushes for more resilient systems amid the “fragility of modern society”.
That avoidance is in part because of the ease with which smart technologies can be hacked or breach a person’s privacy. “Also, I don’t want my home to be vulnerable to not being usable in these kinds of events,” he says.
He also highlights the issues of outages for vulnerable people. He’s in the process of designing a system for his elderly mother, who is living independently with dementia, so she can communicate even when the phone and the internet are down.
“What I’m trying to do for my mum is to make an aid that will work in her home, that will be resilient in the face of the loss of internet,” he says. “She’ll be able to press a button that will call me and if the internet’s there, she can … but I can put a two-way radio nodule in there … or satellite communication.
“Where there’s safety of life concerned, there are ways to work around it.”
He would also like to see a premium service offered to those who need it that means they can roam on to other people’s networks in the same way international roaming works.
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) warns that increasingly people rely on connected systems and devices.
“The consequences of a lapse in functionality or security posed by outages of data networks and power are potentially catastrophic,” it warned two years ago.
“Resilience needs to be built into Internet of Things devices, especially for those that perform essential functions, to guarantee uninterrupted network and power supply.”
That resilience is particularly important for people with disability who are dependent on the technology for independent living. ACCAN wants those devices manufactured with an uninterruptible power supply, as well as a back up system in case the network goes down.
The home affairs department’s code of practice for the Internet of Things agrees that resilience should be built in and, as far as possible, keep working if the network or the power goes down.
Optus is now facing a Senate inquiry and a government review.
The Greens senator Jordon Steele-John says people with disability have shared their distress with his office. “People were unable to contact their support workers or, at times, emergency services,” he says.
“[The] outage exposed a fundamental flaw and we must ensure all people have affordable and reliable access to internet and communications.”
Gardner-Stephen says more awareness and education is needed. “I hope this wakes Australia up as a society, as a government and as a business community to go: ‘Hey, this has really shown these vulnerabilities are real,’” he says.
Unlike many, Jonkers wasn’t able to just wander around to find a phone or somewhere with wifi.
“I needed a phone to tell me the phones weren’t working. And I needed the internet to tell me the internet wasn’t working,” she says.