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Mobile phone reception in the Outback is a joke

By Ron Moon, 22 Mar 2016 Opinion

Mobile phone reception in the Outback is a joke

Some Third World countries have better mobile phone reception than outback Australia. That’s simply not good enough!

I was coming down the Oodnadatta Track the other day, dropping in to outback towns including Finke in the Northern Territory, and Oodnadatta, William Creek and Marree in South Australia.

It was bloody hot and there were very few travellers on the road, so each town was a welcome stop in the heat-soaked landscape.

Not one of these small but important towns – that service a vast and remote inland area – had mobile phone reception! Well, Oodnadatta has a short-range Optus service, I’ve been told, but that is all. That’s bloody disgusting in this day and age in a modern country such as ours!

Meanwhile, when passing through countries including Kenya and Mongolia, we found much better and wider mobile phone coverage. For me, that was a revelation of how badly our telcos (and our governments) treat outback Australia and its people.

While some of those iconic Aussie towns and communities may have some form of internet connection, most of the time it is unavailable to the travelling public. In Marree, an internet connection was available at the local pub for public use, but the town has been forced to stop it because of the poor (slow or near non-existent) connection provided by the much-talked-about National Broadband Network (NBN). That is piss poor!

All is not lost, however. Supposedly, the mobile phone network will get a big upgrade over the next couple of years, with the Federal and State governments teaming up with Telstra and Vodafone in a $385 million program to bring mobile services to far-flung places. Note that Optus did not get any of the monetary pie, even though they did apply for some.

In total there will be 144 new and upgraded base stations built across New South Wales, 110 in Victoria, 68 in Queensland, 130 in Western Australia, 11 in South Australia, 31 in Tasmania and five in the Northern Territory.

These bases include Gooloogong in NSW, Dingo in Qld, Cape Otway in Vic and the Aboriginal communities of Imanpa in the NT and Fregon in SA. There was no reference to important tourist towns such as those mentioned on the Oodnadatta Track or elsewhere across the country, but they could be lucky ... we’ll see!

These new and upgraded base stations from Telstra and Vodafone will supposedly provide improved mobile reception and coverage to 68,600km² and new external antenna coverage to more than 150,000km². More than 5700km of major transport routes will also receive new handheld or external antenna coverage.

By all accounts both Telstra and Vodafone will determine the rollout sequence of the new and improved bases, while the feds said they will closely monitor the upgrades and ensure that regular public updates are provided.

The first new base station was to be completed by the end of 2015, but have we seen any updates on that? And have we seen any progress with the NBN and its supposed ‘future proofing’ of all of Australia?

Ask any bush person and most would agree that it’s a cruel joke. Download limits are, where they exist, tiny – and connection is so slow that even sending a basic email is often impossible. The publican at Marree, who wanted to upload pics to a tourist-popular website, had to drive to Port Augusta, 380km away, to get a connection good enough for the job!

After all that and the billions of dollars spent, I wouldn’t be relying on my mobile phone to get me out of trouble when I’m stuck in the outback. And if you have a mobile phone provider other than Telstra, best of luck getting coverage anywhere in the outback.

I’ll continue to pack my sat phone or my HF radio, thanks – and I suggest you do something similar!