Outage outrage: Telstra under fire at forum

TELSTRA tried hard to calm the troubled waters, but was told bluntly last night by Warrnambool’s frustrated business community it could not sweep the devastating south-west outage under the carpet.

More than 400 people turned out to hear official apologies and promises to do better, but it was the proposed compensation package that stirred fresh flames of discontent.

“If Telstra sticks to its one-off final claim system it will be in for one hell of a fight,” former McDonald’s Restaurant owner Trevor Hawker said.

“There will be one almighty stinky little fight ahead. I can’t believe the attitude I’m hearing tonight.”

Mr Hawker left his scathing comments until last after an array of business operators shared their financial and personal anguish, brought on by the November 22 fire at the central Warrnambool Telstra exchange which knocked out 100,000 services across the south-west region.

Several thousand households and businesses in Warrnambool are still without fully-functioning landline, internet and EFTPOS services, but have been promised that the huge repair effort by more than 100 technicians on around-the-clock shifts should have most restored by the weekend.

While there was wide applause for the hard-working technicians, Telstra’s chief executive David Thodey and the federal government came in for sharp criticism for their lack of early action.

Mr Thodey visited the exchange on Tuesday, apologised for the disaster and promised speedy compensation, but he won little praise last night from various members of the audience who said he should have been down much earlier.

“You guys here are on the battlefront, so you need to go to the top and ask for a change in the compensation.”

Telstra’s business group manager Will Irving explained a two-tier compensation system with claims under $1000 needing just a statutory declaration while anything over that amount requiring supporting documentation.

Two Warrnambool accounting firms have been engaged to help applicants deal with the required information and a 15-day turnaround for payment has been promised.

However, it was Mr Irving’s explanation on “standard prodecure” for finality on claims that stirred emotions.

He said Telstra was prepared to allow up to three years for a claim to be made so applicants could get a better calculation of the impact.

However, he said once a claim was agreed on that was the end of the process and applicants could not double-dip.

Later he conceded it would be possible to make part of a claim earlier with an agreed understanding a final summary would follow.

“Normally if a claim is agreed, it’s agreed and you can’t come back later,” he said.

Property developer Darren Harris also warned there would be unrest over the compensation issue if it was inflexible and also criticised Mr Thodey’s lack of presence at the forum.

Regional manager Bill Mundy, who has been the local voice of Telstra since day one of the outage, told the crowd a number of times the company realised its reputation and credibility had been heavily dented, but was determined to rebuild.

He fielded questions on why it took so long to restore services in Warrnambool, the failure of staff in the national call centre to even realise there had been an outage, why there wasn’t a fire supression system and what measures would be taken to build a back-up. 

One speaker was close to tears while explaining how his partner was exhausted from stress and long hours in coping with the outage. Others recalled several occasions when they rang the national help line but got none.

State MP Denis Napthine and federal MP Dan Tehan urged businesses and householders to attend a federal inquiry forum in Warrnambool on December 17 in the Lighthouse Theatre from 10am to noon.

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