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Three fined £1.9m over emergency communications failure

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has hit mobile operator Three with a £1.9m fine after a loss of service left customers unable to contact the emergency services

Mobile network operator (MNO) Three has been fined £1,890,000 by the telecoms industry regulator Ofcom after an investigation uncovered serious weaknesses in its emergency call network.

Like all MNOs in the UK, Three is required to ensure all of its users can contact the emergency services at all times, which requires its network to be built to allow such calls to be connected even when they are experiencing a technical problem.

In October 2016, a temporary loss of service affected Three customers in Kent, Hampshire and parts of London. During this outage, emergency calls from customers had to pass through a particular datacentre to reach the emergency services, leaving the network vulnerable to a single point of failure.

The network should have been able to automatically divert emergency calls over back-up routes in the event of a local outage, but in this case these routes would not have worked because they were all being directed through this datacentre.

This was found to be in breach of the agreement to ensure uninterrupted access to ambulance, fire and police services, although Ofcom found the breach was not the incident itself, which did not result in any problems, rather the fact that there was a single point of potential failure on the network. The datacentre in question was not the cause of the network outage.

Ofcom said Three did not act deliberately or recklessly, but nevertheless the breach was serious enough to warrant a large fine given the potential effect on health and safety.

“Telephone access to the emergency services is extremely important, because failures can have serious consequences for people’s safety and wellbeing,” said Ofcom director of enforcement and investigations Gaucho Rasmussen.

“Today’s fine serves as a clear warning to the wider telecoms industry. Providers must take all necessary steps to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency services.”

Read more about emergency services communications

In a statement, a Three spokesperson acknowledged the failings and said Three had now taken steps to ensure the potential point of failure was eliminated by adding new back-up routes in its network.

“Providing our customers with uninterrupted access to emergency services is a requirement we take extremely seriously. Three therefore acknowledges Ofcom’s decision today to fine Three for a single point of vulnerability on Three’s network. However, this vulnerability has not had any impact on our customers and only relates to a potential point of failure in Three’s network,” they said.

The spokesperson added that Ofcom had recognised the circumstances surrounding the outage – which resulted from a fibre cable being broken – were exceptional and outside of its control, and that the MNO had co-operated fully throughout the investigation. The scale of the fine reflects this.

Ofcom added that it expects all operators to satisfy themselves that their networks do not have any single points of failure in the routing of their emergency call traffic, which can reasonably be avoided.

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