The incumbent Australian operator, Telstra, is no stranger to controversies, having fomented quite a few in recent years by its evident determination to make a media coup out of just about anything that pops into what might loosely be described as the brains of its PR department. However, its latest wheeze - to provide free phone calls to Gaza - is causing even more uproar than is usual Downunder.
The Australian media (and public opinion) is split (pretty unevenly it must be said) between those that see the gesture as humanitarian and deeply meaningful and those that regard it as a cynical and opportunistic publicity stunt in the worst possible taste.
It was Telstra's CEO, Sol Trujillo, who made the announcement to a gob-smacked nation, saying that the carrier is offering a telecoms assistance package to Australian customers who may be affected by "unrest" in the Gaza area.
The "assistance package" takes the form of free telephone calls from "Telstra retail customers' residential fixed lines" (i.e their home phones) to the Gaza area.
Mr. Trujillo said, "Telstra customers in Australia will be able to call free of charge from their home phones to check on the wellbeing of immediate family members in the Gaza area. We appreciate that many of our customers are concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of their families in the region. Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by the unrest and especially people who may have been displaced or lost loved ones.''
Seemingly all that Telstra is asking in return for its magnanimity is that customers "remain patient" and "keep their calls brief". This, the company says, is because telecoms networks in the Gaza area "are likely to be under stress".
"Under stress" is something of an "under" statement.
Two days ago, the main provider of telecoms in Gaza, Paltel, gave warning that the territory may be "disconnected from the outside world as a result of the air strikes and ground assaults."
In a press statement of its own, Paltel, says it has lost workers in the ongoing Incursion by Israeli forces and adds that 90 per cent of Gaza's mobile phone service has been knocked-out whilst a significant number of fixed lines have been "destroyed or badly damaged."
The Paltel statement says, "We have lost three technicians in the attacks, several technicians were injured during their efforts to repair some technical damage, numerous switchboards, mobile masts, and transmission alternatives have been totally damaged and destroyed in air raids and the ground attack.''
Now, Australia does indeed have some residents and citizens of Palestinian origin with family and friends in Gaza, but they are comparatively few in number and easily identifiable on Telstra's records by virtue of their names and calling histories.
Given that, one might then have thought that Telstra would have worked quietly behind the scenes to permit these people to make free calls without all the attendant publicity bally-hoo and then perhaps mention the initiative more or less in passing and not make a big PR deal of it all.
Some hope. The press release accompanying the announcement is couched in terms to ensure maximum media exposure and the result has been the absolute polarisarion of Australian opinion in regard to their incumbent carrier and its senior management.
Those seeing the "assistance package" as a little more than a misguided PR stunt are now pressing Telstra to provide free calls to subscribers who have friends and family in those parts of Israel where Hamas rockets are landing amongst the civilian population whilst media pundits point out that the carrier has now created a precedent and that Telstra customers having friends or family in any far-flung corner of the world that might be affected by war or civil insurrection should make their case for free phone calls directly to Mr. Trujillo.
And, those Telsta subscribers that do wish to take advantage of Telstra's largesse should read the small print as the offer isn't open for long. The free calls period begins tomorrow, Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at noon AEST and ends at noon on Thursday, January 15. It applies only to calls with the 0011 970 8 area code.
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