Here’ s a tale from the call centre frontline that illustrates Telstra’s painful transition from state-owned monopoly, to private operator, to structurally separated bit player. Last week, Crikey received a curious query from a Victorian reader peeved at a recent call to Telstra’s triple-0 emergency service. Seemed there’d been a disturbance in his street warranting the attendance of the police:

Last Tuesday night I dialled 000 for police attendance at a disturbance in my street. The call went through to a female operator who took the address and a brief description of the situation. I was then put through to a male operator. The original operator gave a series of numbers, and the male responded with “thank you, Telstra”. After reporting the incident I asked the operator if thanking Telstra is compulsory in his role, and he confirmed that it is. Why? The routine serves no purpose other than advertising Telstra. Is Telstra sponsoring Victoria Police, and, if so, how appropriate is that? I can think of no worse time for a bit of corporate marketing than when someone is desperately calling for police help.

So what’s going on?

When someone dials triple-0, the call is answered by Telstra’s national call centre, which then directs the call to the relevant state-based call centre, with a further division depending on whether the query relates to the police, fire or ambulance.

In Victoria, the call ends up with the relevant arm of the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority. To confirm the call has been transferred, the operator is required to say the words “thank you Telstra”, alongside a caller ID reference number. A nice Pete Smith-style plug if you can get it, especially when the ESTA managed 1,827,106 calls in the past financial year, representing a call every 17 seconds.

So, a simple courtesy or something more nefarious? Crikey asked other states whether they required operators to say “thank you Telstra”? In South Australia, operators are required to say, simply, “Fire and emergency services, what is your emergency?” In Queensland, the presence of the state-based operator on the line is enough to acknowledge the call has been transferred. In New South Wales, there may be a reference to Telstra, but it’s not clear whether the caller hears the magic words.

So why does Victoria persist with the plug? Surely there are any number of methods to confirm whether a call has reached its destination? Wayne Debernardi, from the ESTA, told Crikey that the words are required “so Telstra can disconnect from the call, leaving the Triple Zero caller connected to ESTA, knowing that the ESTA operator has received and understood the applicable data reference number.”

Luckily, we’re not talking about a contra deal — the triple-0 service is operated by Telstra as a condition of its national telecommunications licence — itself a remnant of an earlier government-owned era. When asked whether the Victorian arrangement constituted advertising, Debernardi responded, “what advertising?”

But all this could all be about to change. Telstra is believed to be anxious to divest itself of responsibility for the triple-0 service in the wake of the Black Saturday disaster, when 70% of about 10,000 frantic calls were abandoned as frustrated callers hung up amid interminable delays.

In total, last financial year Telstra was inundated by about 10.3 million calls, or about 1,200 an hour, about half of which are pranks, dialling mistakes, fax machines or non-emergencies.

Last September, Telstra’s group managing director of public policy, David Quilty, wrote to Attorney-General Robert McClelland to urge the government to take “operational and strategic responsibility” for the triple-0 facility, which he slammed as a “last-century arrangement”.

But what if an alternative telco, rather than the government, took over the service? Would Victorian authorities still deem it necessary to plug a Telstra rival like, for example, iiNet?

Debernardi told Crikey: “I imagine if the emergency call service was to change to another provider, the protocol would be exactly the same and therefore, yes, we would respond by saying thank you, iiNet.”

So now we know.