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Telstra downplays possibility of allowing customers to roam rival networks during outages

<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Telstra has downplayed the possibility of allowing customers of one mobile operator to be able to use another mobile network in the event of a nationwide outage such as the Optus outage earlier this month, arguing it would require massive changes and investment.

In the aftermath of the 14-hour Optus network outage on 8 November, questions were raised as to why Optus customers could not roam on to Telstra’s or Vodafone’s network instead – with a similar system put in place in Canada following an identical outage from one telco last year.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) tasked Telstra with reviewing whether it was feasible in the event of natural disasters and emergencies, and found it was technically feasible, but the regulator said in a submission to the Optus outage Senate inquiry that it did not assess whether it was feasible for a national outage.

Telstra also downplayed the possibility of a national roaming possibility. The temporary roaming being explored is only designed to provide users with access in select areas, covering select towers and not a whole network, Telstra said in its submission to the outage inquiry.

“[The] solution currently being considered in Australia would not be capable of compensating for an outage in the core network of a disrupted MNO [mobile network operator].

“This is because roaming, even temporarily, requires authentication of the end user by their MNO and ultimately the routing of their traffic back to the core network.”

If the capability had been up and running on 8 November, it would not have worked for Optus customers because Optus’s core network was down, Telstra said.

The company said even if the core network was up, the “sudden increase in new connections and traffic from roaming end users would overwhelm the host network”.

To enable full customer fall over during a national mass outage, Telstra said it would have to have subscriber records from every customer of every telco in every system, or it would need to be contained in a government register.

“Both options would require a solution that overcomes the network variations, feature differences or incompatibilities, authentication key synchronisation, security concerns of sharing SIM card encryption keys and proprietary information in subscription records,” Telstra said.

Related: Optus gets some clear air but the ghosts of twin disasters will haunt whoever comes next

“Implementing such a solution would be highly complex, is likely to be very expensive, and we are not aware of any other country doing this yet.”

Vodafone’s parent company, TPG, said in its submission such a proposal is “likely to be complex and will require government funding support”.

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) said its preliminary view on complaints received from Optus customers over the outage were mostly seeking compensation – beyond the free 200GB of data offered.

The ombudsman said the harm suffered included being unable to work, make sales, pay for food or bills, attend medical appointments, contact friends or family, study or get information out of Optus about the outage.

The Department of Home Affairs revealed in its submission the outage took down Home Affairs’ global service centre on the morning of the outage and also “partially impacted” Border Force operations until business continuity plans were activated.

The department said it first contacted Optus at 7am on the day of the outage via the Signal encrypted communications app to determine whether it was a cyber-attack.

Telstra also defended its role in the 000 emergency call system after it was revealed that 228 Optus mobile customers were unable to connect their 000 calls. Telstra said its service remained operational during the outage and did connect some Optus calls to 000 during the outage.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma) is conducting an investigation into the failure of emergency calls to connect and told the committee that remedies, if a breach is found, could include seeking penalties in the federal court.

Kelly Bayer Rosmarin resigned as chief executive of Optus on Monday morning, after giving evidence to the committee on Friday, saying she believed it was in the company’s best interest she leave following the outage.