Telstra outage caused 1,400 Triple Zero calls to fail: ACMA

Telstra's May fibre outage meant 1,433 Triple Zero calls did not get through to the emergency services operator, the ACMA has revealed.
Written by Corinne Reichert on

An Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) investigation into Triple Zero emergency call services has found that Telstra breached the rule to ensure all 000 calls on its network are carried to emergency call operators.

According to the ACMA, Telstra failed to deliver 1,433 calls to the emergency service operator on May 4 due to a network outage, breaching s22 of the Telecommunications (Emergency Call Service) Determination 2009 and the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999.

The outage had been caused by fire damage to fibre cables, causing mobile voice connection interruptions across New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland for a period of around nine hours.

The Department of Communications added that on May 26, "an unusual volume of calls were unintentionally directed from another carrier's network to Triple Zero, causing congestion".

Calling the outage "complex and unprecedented", Telstra executive director of Regulatory Affairs Jane van Beelen said in a blog post on Monday that the telco carried out its own investigation too.

"The disruption was due to the combined impact of three separate network issues: A hardware fault, fire damage to a main inter-capital fibre cable, and a software fault," van Beelen explained.

"We take our responsibilities as the service provider for Triple Zero (000) extremely seriously. One failed call to Triple Zero is one too many and we apologise again for what occurred.

"We have also entered into an enforceable undertaking with the ACMA to make and maintain a number of improvements including to: Our monitoring and fault detection processes and systems; our network redundancy and diversity for emergency calls; [and] our infrastructure and software."

Telstra will also develop "new communication protocols to be used in the event of another disruption and [is] benchmarking its systems against international best practice", the ACMA said.

"Triple Zero is the lifeline for Australians in life-threatening or emergency situations. Community confidence in the emergency call service must be maintained," ACMA Chair Nerida O'Loughlin said.

"The actions Telstra has already taken, and is undertaking, will help strengthen the emergency call service and minimise the risk of another disruption to this critical service."

The Department of Communications is also discussing with Telstra the implementation of a new IP platform, it said, in order to handle "next-generation Triple Zero capabilities, as well as advanced mobile location (AML) to provide more accurate location information by automatically sending coordinates to Triple Zero".

"The government takes the safety of Australians seriously, and the Triple Zero service is vital in keeping our community safe," Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said.

"This was the first serious disruption to the Triple Zero service in more than 50 years. With the measures the government [is] putting in place, Australians can feel confident the service will have greater safeguards in times of need."

The ACMA is also consequently reviewing its Triple Zero rules, releasing a consultation paper on the service and asking for submissions until November 12 on various issues, including how the emergency call service can become more technology neutral; how it should deal with new technologies; whether wholesale layer 2 bitstream providers should be subject to the service requirements; what exemptions should be made; and whether other carriers should be required to arrange for emergency calls to default to Telstra's network.

The Review of the Telecommunications (Emergency Call Service) Determination 2009: Consultation paper is also accepting feedback on whether carriers should be required to actively monitor traffic and detect and deal with possible denial-of-service (DoS) attacks; how it should deal with calls from VoIP services located overseas; and whether VoIP carriers should provide location information from callers.

The ACMA is also looking for submissions on obligations in the event of a service disruption, and whether it should include daily performance benchmarks rather than monthly.

The announcement followed the ACMA earlier this month similarly finding Telstra to be in breach of assisting customers with life-threatening medical conditions, with the telco directed to commission an independent audit of its priority assistance obligations compliance.

"The remedial direction results from an investigation into Telstra following two incidents in 2017 where customers with serious, chronic health conditions were unable to use their Telstra landline service," the ACMA said.

"Neither customer was registered for priority assistance, but both made plain their serious health conditions and their need for a working telephone service.

"In both cases, the customers passed away."

According to the ACMA, in both of these cases, Telstra failed to provide priority assistance information eight times when customers had enquired, and to put into practice emergency medical request procedures nine times.

Telstra has since commissioned the audit, which will examine the scripts and training being given to Telstra staff members and will look into past complaints on the issue.

Under its priority assistance obligations, Telstra is required to provide information to customers who enquire about the service; follow procedures to provide a working phone service to customers not registered for priority assistance but "have an urgent need" due to a life-threatening condition; and ensure the phone services of registered priority assistance customers are connected, and in the event of an outage given priority for repairs or provided with interim services.

Telstra was last month also forced to provide AU$9.3 million in refunds and pay AU$10 million in penalties after misleading customers on its premium direct billing (PDB) services; and last year refund more than 40,000 NBN customers and refund AFL subscribers.

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