Why we need to chill a little about online banking outages

Angus Kidman 3 August 2016


It sucks when we can't get access, but it used to suck so much more.

On Monday this week, the Commonwealth Bank's NetBank service was down for about five hours. While ATMs and EFTPOS were still working, many customers couldn't access NetBank to check balances, leading to much anger on social media and profuse apologies from the bank. If we can't get exactly the services we want at any hour of the day, we're quick to complain.

Even planned outages for updates and maintenance can feel inconvenient. For instance, CommBank schedules most of its required outages to occur on Friday or Saturday nights between 10pm and 10am. While most customers will be asleep across a large chunk of that time, outages mean that you can't make use of the cardless cash feature to withdraw money from an ATM if you lose your card. That's much more likely to happen on a Friday or Saturday night out on the town, as I've learned myself on a couple of occasions.

We're so quick to be outraged by outages that we sometimes lose sight of just how flexible our choices are these days. When I was a young child in the 1970s, people complaining about not being able to access their money and move it around whenever it suited them would have seemed some kind of bizarre sci-fi fantasy.

The only way to get hold of cash was to go into a bank and withdraw it. Bank hours were Monday-Friday only, and not even for the whole business day then. In busy periods, queues weren't uncommon. The picture above shows people queuing to deposit money in 1954, waiting for the bank to open at 10am.

You'd have to work out how much money you'd need for the fortnight (assuming that was your pay cycle), and you'd withdraw it in one hit. The only cash-free options were paying by cheque or, more daringly, using a Bankcard (the credit card predecessor to Visa and MasterCard in Australia, introduced in 1974).

I'm certainly not arguing that was a better arrangement in terms of convenience. It's possible it encouraged us to set up better personal budgets, since we couldn't just race to the ATM and grab cash whenever we needed it, or pay for something simply by tapping a card on a terminal. But it also meant having to make time to physically pay all your bills, or mail off cheques to pay them.

Our habits change when technology improves. These days, if I have to go to the bank to do something, it feels like an inconvenience. I'd much rather complete those tasks online or through an app. But if I can't do that for a few hours, I'm not going to assume it's the end of the world. At least I'm not in a queue.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on finder.com.au.

Picture: Trove

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