Challenges of living in a mobile black spot

Published: July 2018 | Edited by Nicola Bell 

Want to get in touch with NSW Farmers’ Rural Affairs Committee chair Sonia O’Keefe? It’s pretty complicated – as she’s stuck in a mobile phone black spot. And in this day and age, it’s just not good enough.

MY partner Tim and I live on our farm 30km east of Walcha in the Northern Tablelands – and we don’t get any mobile reception at the house, and very limited coverage across the property. I know this isn’t an unusual story for those of us living in rural or regional areas. Most of the time I’m used to it, because we have the landline and satellite internet – although it is very slow – and we don’t carry our mobiles with us when we’re working. But it’s a challenge for others who might be trying to get in touch with us. In this day and age, people call your mobile and leave a message. The problem with that is if I am at home for three or four days, I won’t get a message and thus won’t get back to people. 

I found myself saying to someone recently, if it’s before 9am call the landline, if it’s between 9am and 3.30pm call the mobile, and then if it’s after 3.30pm call the landline. It’s confusing and challenging for people trying to contact us.

IN A PICKLE WITHOUT MOBILE PHONE COVERAGE 

Recently, though, our lack of mobile phone coverage became a big glaring problem. Our daughter-in-law Alison was having her first baby and she chose to go to Sydney to wait for the birth three weeks before the due date. She went without her husband Charles, as he couldn’t leave the farm for that long. Alison said to me: “If I go into labour and can’t get on to Charles, can I call you, and you can go and find him?”

While that might seem simple enough, it meant we had to take our mobiles with us, even though they don’t work, but we might cross a part of the property where we get just enough reception to get a message through. Charles had to tell us every day what he was doing and where he would be and, if those plans changed, he left us a note at his place. So we then had to go and check that note so we could potentially find him and say Alison is having a baby and you have to leave now because you’re six hours from Sydney. It was incredibly challenging. Who wants to miss the birth of their baby?

We run sheep and cattle on 810 hectares. Does having no mobile coverage affect our farm business economically? It’s hard to know – because we don’t have it, we can’t measure it. The challenge is getting the computer program developers, and right up to government departments, to understand the situation we are in and how things might not work the same for us.
 
RURAL USERS LEFT BEHIND WITH AGE OLD SATELLITE INTERNET

We’ve also got the added challenge of being on an old satellite for our internet, and while it always works, it is slow and we have only 5GB of data allowance a month. We live with it because we don’t have anything else, but it affects how we interact with others because they don’t understand the constraints we are under. Someone will send me an email and then call me 10 minutes later and ask if I got the email. My response is usually not yet, be patient. What someone might do in a matter of minutes may take me overnight.

No mobile phone coverage and lack of internet options has a huge financial impact on us and many other farmers. We pay $120 a month for the landline, $120 a month for two mobiles that we hardly use and $60 a month for the internet. If we had mobile coverage and could get our mobiles, landline and internet with five times the data all on one plan, it would cost us half as much. 

While it was disappointing that May’s Federal Budget didn’t have another round of mobile black spot funding in it, we also need closer scrutiny of what has actually been achieved with the past three rounds of funding. Does it really extend coverage for those with no reception – or does it just help in major tourist areas? 

Government policy and the legislation around telecommunications has a big role to play in how we improve mobile coverage. The big telecommunications operators are private companies and put infrastructure where they see a monetary benefit, which is their right. But the next step is to have second- and third-tier providers leverage off infrastructure that already exists. These are much smaller companies that will create bespoke solutions over smaller areas. But we have to have the legislative process to allow this to happen.

Last year, the NSW government pledged $50 million in improvements to phone and data connectivity in rural and regional areas through the Connecting Country Communities fund. I’m keen to see what the government intends to do with that. 

5 GOALS OF THE CONNECTING COUNTRY COMMUNITIES FUND 

  • Identify key non-coverage or mobile black spot sites across NSW
  • Establish end-to-end solutions for site builds that provide coverage for mobile black spot sites 
  • Deliver maximum value for money 
  • Leverage the successful supplier’s network infrastructure to reduce duplication of site builds identified under the NSW Government’s Critical Communications Enhancement Program 
  • Effectively eliminate mobile black spots and extend mobile phone coverage within identified areas

“We need to keep being vocal about bad mobile phone coverage and put pressure on all levels of government to ensure our voices are heard. In 2018, the rest of the economy operates on 2018 technology, except for farmers. Agriculture will become a second-rate industry if telecommunications isn’t sorted out.”

 

*The 2018 Budget failed to commit additional funding for this much needed problem. Details here: ‘Federal Budget: Wholesome but lacking sizzle’.   

NOTE: Sonia and her family have welcomed a gorgeous baby boy named Jack. In the end, they didn’t need to worry about mobile phone issues as he arrived five days overdue, so Charles had already travelled to Sydney to be close by.

*These are Sonia’s personal views. If you would like to be ‘On My Soapbox’ in a future issue of The Farmer, email us here or write to: The Farmer, Suite 26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW, 2009. If your topic is chosen, a journalist will be in touch.

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