The national Triple Zero emergency service network needs to be modernised to include the use of SMS, voice-over-IP, mobile applications and other forms of electronic communications to report emergencies, representatives of Australia's telecommunications industry have urged.
In July the federal government announced it would conduct a review of the voice call-only Triple Zero service to determine its effectiveness in light of advancements in technology.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the time pointed to the development of the Emergency+ smartphone app (built by the Triple Zero Awareness Working Group for iOS and Android) - which displays the GPS coordinates of a phone to its owner to read out to the operator - as one way new technology can be leveraged for the national 000 service.
Emergency phone calls are no longer predominantly made from landlines (two-thirds are now made from mobiles) as was the case when the 000 service was established, Turnbull said at the time.
The expectations of users had similarly changed and meant the Government needed to modernise the service to keep up, he said.
In recently published submissions to the review of the Triple Zero network, members of the Australian telecommunications industry warned that consequences would follow any delays to this modernisation.
Telecommunications industry bodies the Communications Alliance and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) canvassed a range of regulatory, governance and technological issues with the current operation in their joint submission.
The pair warned that existing limitations to the service - including its voice-only nature - were likely to become more tangible in years to come.
They said the narrow definition of a standard telephone service for the Triple Zero network was hindering the take-up of next generation technologies, and the current system was additionally failing to exploit the capabilities of consumer devices and applications.
The submissions also highlighted the potential of device-based apps to supply health information about a caller to emergency service operators, access their GPS location, and provide incident video and photos to operators
"End users familiar with the use of particular technology devices or applications for their day to day communications may assume that access to ESOs [emergency service operators] is a ‘built in’ component or function of those communications, but in fact they are not," the pair wrote.
"There is growing expectation in the industry that Australia should have an emergency communications service that can adapt flexibly to changing communications patterns based on current and future end-user needs."
Australia appeared to be lagging behind its international peers when it comes to the adoption of next-generation emergency communications, the pair said.
However, the Comms Alliance and AMTA also warned that the introduction of new types of 000 services may not remain free to all users.
"It may not be technically possible to make all future modes of emergency communication to the ESOs completely free. For example, an ‘over the top’ VoIP service running over a mobile or fixed data service may incur data charges for the data service," the pair warned.
"Use of the ‘over the top’ service for emergency communications may not be possible if the underlying data service is suspended, for example, or if available credit is exhausted."
Hoax and non-genuine callers to emergency service operators should be forced to cover any costs, the Comms Alliance and AMTA argued.
"This is no different to the fire brigade charging for the attendance of vehicles to false alarms."
Australia's peak consumer communications representative body, ACCAN, was more cautious about the introduction of new technologies into 000 operations [pdf] in case they "detract from its ease of use and reliability", but did endorse the introduction of SMS and mobile applicaiton capability to the Triple Zero network.
Australia's third largest telco Vodafone said it agreed with the joint Comms Alliance and AMTA submission, but added that access to the 000 service should be available by "any form" of electronic communication, including MMS, social media, and video streaming, alongside SMS and voice calls.
"To fail to meet this expectation could result in serious danger to a person, their property or the community," the telco wrote in its submission [pdf].
Vodafone admitted that while opening up the service to other methods of communication exposed emergency services to an increase in hoax calls, such issues could to some extent be mitigated through a proactive monitoring approach.
" ... there would likely be additional evidence of a genuine event through multiple channels providing clear evidence that a genuine emergency existed," Vodafone wrote.
"In addition, stricter penalties could be put into place to name and shame those who made false claims via social media. Financial penalties and device blocking could also be applied."
Telstra charging unfair fees
Vodafone also took the opportunity to push for a state-based approach to the Triple Zero network, which it said would provide a more timely service and cut down costs for suppliers.
Vodafone complained Telstra was using its current monopoly position as the Triple Zero operator (TZO) to charge "what it wants" for the connection of calls, specifically higher rates to Vodafone than others.
"VHA would then pay the prevailing interconnect rate and not the currently inflated rate charged to VHA by Telstra as the TZO," Vodafone wrote in its submission.
"Telstra does not currently charge the same interconnect fee to each provider and VHA pays a higher rate than another supplier and Telstra has been unwilling to charge VHA the same lower rate."
If the current single, national operator model is to continue, it should be funded entirely by the government and not be reliant on interconnect fees to make up any shortfalls, Vodafone argued.