With the exception of 0800 numbers used by pizza chains, 111 is probably the most recollected phone number in NZ. It’s a number drummed into children from a young age, and the vast majority of us know it’s the number to call if you need urgent assistance from the police, fire service, or an ambulance. Around 3 million 111 calls are made each year in New Zealand.
One thing many people are unaware of however, is that the 111 service is totally independent of all three emergency services. A call to 111 isn’t answered directly by an emergency services call taker, it is actually answered by a Telecom employee at a Telecom call centre (known as an ICAP – Initial Call Answering Platform) in either Christchurch or Wellington who will establish the service you are after and then forward the call on to the service you have requested – police, fire or ambulance. The call will then be answered by an emergency services call taker in one of six communications centres across New Zealand – three combined Police and Fire communications centres in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland if you have requested police or fire, or three standalone ambulance communications centres that are also in Christchurch, Wellington or Auckland if you have requested an ambulance. Job details will be collected by en emergency services call taker who will action your call. In this modern era the communications centres in all three cities are linked together, meaning that your call could easily be answered by a call taker in another city if a major incident is occurring that results in large numbers of simultaneous calls swamping the nearest communications centre.
Telecom have provided the 111 service since it’s inception in the 1950’s, and up until the late 1990’s were the logical provider of such a service since they were the only provider of Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN)landline phone services in the country. Mobile phones were also still still in their infancy, and Telecom were the largest mobile provider in the country. The last decade has seen significant change in the marketplace – we now have Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees providing mobile services (along with a number of resellers piggy backing on the Telecom and Vodafone networks), and 65% of 111 calls now made from mobile phones. A large number of other telecommunications companies and internet service providers (ISP’s) also now provide phone services, either over copper phone lines in the same way Telecom have historically done, or using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) carried over the internet.
In light of several recent issues on the Telecom network that may have resulted in the inability for some 111 calls to be be connected, the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) commissioned a discussion document looking at the background of the 111 service and whether changes should be made to the service going forward. Public submissions are open, and this is your chance to have a say on how the 111 service is funded and operates.
I’ll briefly touch on a few issues that are worthy of some thought – many are discussed in the MED discussion document, but I thought I’d add a little food for thought for those who may want to send in a submission.
- With a growing number of 111 calls being made from mobile phones, should mobile carriers and emergency services communications centres upgrade their networks to support the ability to track the location of mobile phones while the call is in progress? This service (E911) has been in place in the USA for some time and requires all phones sold to have a GPS chipset in them and support the E911 service. While we may think such a feature is great to have, who should actually fund the upgrades to support it? Many low end GSM phones don’t support such a feature – would the price of mobile phones increase if such a feature was mandated? Network based triangulation services can also be used to locate a device, but once again this still requires upgrades to support the capability.
- As we move into a VoIP word, a phone is no longer tied by a physical address, and a 111 call could be made from anywhere in the world where an internet connection is available. How do emergency services go about tracking the location of a 111 call if the situation is one of life and death? Some people have chosen to replace their landline phones with VoIP services such as Skype that doesn’t support 111 calls. Should clear warnings have to be displayed by services that don’t support the ability to call 111? The public perception is still that any phone can be used to call 111, in reality this is no longer the case.
- Some providers in New Zealand (2talk being a key example) don’t provide customer address details to the TESA database. This database contains phone numbers and address details and allows emergency services to respond to the address of a 111 non speech or call hangup made from a landline or VoIP phone by doing a reverse lookup on the CallerID. If you call 111 from a phone provided by a provider that doesn’t provide details to the TESA database, emergency services and the 111 call taker will have no idea of your location, and will be unable to respond without the caller providing address details - something that may not be possible in some circumstances. Like the issue above, should providers who don’t supply details for the TESA database be required to clearly warn end users that calling 111 is not supported? Should providers who don’t support 111 calling be required to supply stickers that are required to be fitted to all phones warning that 111 calls are not supported?
- Should Telecom still run the 111 ICAP call centres? These costs approximately $4 million per year to run, and are funded primarily by an interconnect charge each time a 111 call is made. While the 111 service is free for end users, your phone provider is ultimately paying $2.36 for your 111 call. Should 111 be funded through a user pays interconnect fees when 111 is called (as it is now), or funded directly (and possibly even run by) the government? Should running these call centres be put out to tender?
- Currently every 111 call, even those from outside the Telecom network (ie a 111 call from a Vodafone mobile) interconnects with the Telecom network, typically at the closest Telecom point of presence (POP) that offers voice interconnection, of which there are 29 nationwide. The call is then carried within the Telecom network to in the 111 ICAP call centres in Wellington or Christchurch.. As we move forward into a competitive marketplace with a growing number of providers offering phone services, the discussion needs be occur as to whether this is the most logical way of doing things. Up until a few years ago every phone call, even if it didn’t involve a Telecom customer, had to transit the Telecom PSTN network to be connected to the other network. This no longer occurs, with multiple carriers now having their own interconnections, and as we move towards a VoIP world interconnections directly between other providers will become the norm. Should a 111 call from Vodafone (for example) have to interconnect with the Telecom network, or would it be more logical for a provider such as Vodafone to provide their own direct interconnects with the 111 ICAP call centre? With Telecom committed to replacement of it’s legacy PSTN network and a move to VoIP by 2020, is being responsible for the entire 111 system an obligation that Telecom still want to be burdened with?
- With VoIP now becoming mainstream through product offerings such as WxC’s VFX and Orcon Genius many people have a dialtone generated by their residential gateway (RGW) or an analogue telephone adapter (ATA) on their premises. In the PSTN world the dialtone was generated by the legacy Telecom NEAX exchanges that form the core of the PSTN network. These exchanges have both battery backup and generators to ensure they can operate for extended periods of time during is a power cut, but even with the NEAX phone exchanges still functioning after the Christchurch earthquakes, many people found themselves unable to make calls because their cordless phone had no power to operate – non powered analogue phones continued to work fine. As we move into a fibre world with the ultra fast broadband (UFB) rollout the vast majority of homes will find their phone connection moves to a VoIP one, and the optical network terminal (ONT) and/or RGW or ATA within their home require power to provide internet and phone services. Should the installation of a battery backup or uninterrupted power supply (UPS) be mandatory as part of every UFB install? If so, who’s responsibility should it be to maintain this and swap out the batteries every few years to ensure that it stays operational? Even with a UPS or battery backup, the service may still only be able to maintained for upwards of 12 hours. Telecom’s NEAX exchanges and Chorus cabinets can be kept running indefinitely on backup power. Should a large scale event resulting in a loss of power for several days occur in a UFB world, people will find themselves unable to make 111 calls from their landline phone and may struggle to charge their mobile phone. No matter what approach is taken, going forward we’re ultimately going to have a network delivering primary voice lines with uptime figures that won’t necessarily be able to match the 50 year old technology it’s replacing. Power is the Archillies’ heel of our next generation networks.
Telecom have done a magnificent job over the years building and maintaining a robust PSTN network that is still world class. The ability to make an emergency call is a core requirement of any phone network, and failures aren’t just an inconvenience, they could make the difference between life and death. With the split of Telecom into retail and network arms the “Telecom” as we used to know it no longer exists, and it’s a good time to review 111 calling as we enter an era of significant change in the New Zealand telecommunications sector.
The MED have a copy of their consultation document document and details for sending in a submission on their website: http://www.med.govt.nz/sectors-industries/technology-communication/communications/emergency-call-services/emergency-call-services-111-review
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UFB voice, power cuts, copper invincibility and mainstream media FUD.
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