A serious decline in mobile phone coverage in recent months has left farmers and residents living in South Australia’s rural Mallee region to call for more reliable service, especially in times of need.
- Farmers in South Australia’s Mallee say their mobile phone coverage has deteriorated over the past 12 months
- A local CFS captain says mobile service failed completely during the Yumali fire in November 2020
- Federal Member Tony Pasin is pushing for the Government to cover the full cost of establishing new mobile towers to improve service in the regions
Ian Farley runs a mixed farming operation in the tiny locality of Jabuk where he has experienced deteriorating mobile service over the past year, putting a strain on his daily operations and personal safety.
“At Jabuk and the surrounding area right down through to Netherton, the mobile phones worked really good … but in the last 12 months we’ve seen a complete and gradual decline,” he said.
“Now quite often my phone will just drop out while I’m trying to run farming operations.”
Fire flames phone coverage risks
As the local Country Fire Service (CFS) captain he has firsthand experience of what happens when mobile service cuts out completely in an emergency, something that occurred during last year’s Yumali fire.
Mr Farley said the total lack of mobile service during the extreme event made it difficult to coordinate different CFS units to points of safety around the fire, and he resorted to using UHF radios instead.
“The radios were very clogged up … and we had to go down a channel,” he said.
“It would’ve taken away the total pressure of actually operating the show.”
Telstra, who is the only mobile service provider in this region, said all of its mobile base stations relied on mains power to operate, with some level of battery backup.
“In fire situations sometimes these areas can lose power either due to damage or by having the power turned off by the local power authority to minimise risk,” SA regional general manager Mark Bolton said.
“In any emergency situation or where maintaining connectivity is important, Telstra encourages people to have more than one form of communication available to them.
“This can include a landline phone, the internet, a satellite phone or a phone with another carrier.”
Service levels squashed
Mallee farmer Adam Morgan has also experienced a decline in service in the last six months, particularly at his properties around Jabuk and Geranium, to the point where he and his wife can no longer maintain full phone calls in their house.
“Running businesses, my wife running her business, [we are] having trouble with calls all the time,” Mr Morgan said.
“We seem to have fixed that in the short term with a Telstra booster but that comes at a cost and it’s only on 3G.
Telstra’s main base station for the area is a 78-metre phone tower located at Peake which provides 3G and 4G coverage to Peake, Jabuk and surrounding areas.
A 4G small cell installed five years ago also provides mobile coverage to the township of Geranium, with another base station located in Yumali.
Regional manager Mark Bolton told the ABC technicians reviewed the performance of the Peake and Geranium base station last week and found no operating issues that would impact the amount of mobile coverage at the sites.
“There are a number of factors that can influence mobile coverage such as distance from a tower, the type of handset being used, terrain [hills and tall trees] plus built infrastructure such as metal sheds, silos,” he said.
Mr Bolton recommended residents purchase external aerials or mobile boosters to “significantly improve” in-home and in-car coverage.
Mallee on mobile black spot radar
The Federal Member for Barker, Tony Pasin said he has written to Telstra and Optus in relation to improving service in the Mallee at Geranium and Parilla under the government’s Mobile Black Spot program.
“I have no doubt in Jabuk they would need additional service as well. But the focus in this round has been to draw to the attention of Telcos the situation at Geranium and Parilla,” he said.
“Ultimately the decision will be made by either Telstra or Optus, it’s not for the Federal Government to choose where these towers go.”
Mr Pasin said he is also pushing for change to the Government’s funding of each individual phone tower under the program, which he believes should not be capped at 50 per cent.