By Stuart Kavanagh
If you’ve driven the often quiet road between Wilcannia and Broken Hill, or ventured out to Menindee, or even to Wentworth, you will be no stranger to the lack of mobile communications during long stretches of those journeys and while locals know this, it’s little comfort either to them, or visitors, if you break down or have an accident.
Broken Hill resident Sue Telford is so concerned she contacted us to air her worries.
She regularly drives between Broken Hill and Wentworth and says the lack of mobile coverage during those 242km makes her feel very uncomfortable indeed.
Recently, she had an accident when her car collided with a kangaroo, causing considerable damage to her vehicle.
With no mobile service she couldn’t call for help.
Ms Telford had to limp her car back into town.
On another occasion she realised there was no longer cell reception in Coomba, when there had been before.
“What happens if there’s an emergency?” Ms Telford asks.
“Do you leave the person to go and get help, goodness knows how many kilometres away? This could potentially be life and death to someone.”
It does seem ridiculous that in the 21st century there are still large swathes of Australia effectively communications black spots, and of course usually they are among our most isolated areas where you could argue the need is potentially more acute and can sometimes literally be a case of life and death.
Michelle Rowland, the newly-minted Federal Minister for Communications, is well aware of the issues and say action will be taken.
A spokesperson for the Minister told the Barrier Truth, “the Minister has previously confirmed an intention to honour grants awarded under the Regional Connectivity Program, including Round 2.
“This includes $2.9 million to deploy three new Telstra macro mobile sites to improve mobile communications along the Silver City Highway.
“Formal announcements will be made by the Minister in due course once proper procedures have been completed.
“Labor’s pre-election commitments under the Better Connectivity Plan also included additional major regional communications investments including $200 million for further rounds of the Regional Connectivity Program, and $400 million for multi-carrier mobile coverage on regional roads and improved coverage for regional communities.”
Mike Marom, Regional General Manager for Telstra in NSW, told us, “from a Telstra perspective, in the Broken Hill area we have added new 4G coverage at Anderson Hill and turned on a new mobile base station at Medindee in December 2021.”
The problem is this – while turning on a new mobile base station in a population centre like Menindee or Broken Hill sounds good, and it does make mobile reception better for residents and visitors, it does not solve the issue of the two hours of dead mobile reception between Menindee and Broken Hill – as just one example.
“In early 2023 we will also be building a new site located in Broken Hill West, delivering new 4G and 5G mobile coverage to the area,” says Mr Marom.
There is some hope for those of us who often have to travel the mobile communications’ black spot areas.
Mr Marom says, “through Round 5A of the Mobile Blackspot Program, Telstra has been selected to construct three new base stations at Glenora Barrier Highway, Little Topar, and Barrier Creek Highway that will enhance coverage between Broken Hill and Wilcannia.
“The Regional Connectivity Program is another co-investment initiative that Telstra financially supports, and as part of Round 2 of this program Telstra will also be building three new base stations to expand coverage along the Silver City Highway between Scotia and Wentworth.
“We are currently working with the government to finalise funding agreements for both these programs and once completed, will look to identify potential sites and begin design and seek necessary approvals soon after that.
Once this process has finished, we would look to begin construction as soon as possible.”
Is there a timeline for all this? It’s a question Ms Telford would like an answer to aswell.
“How long is that going to take? From government funding and then the erection of the towers? She asks.
“This is, or should be, a combined Telstra, Shires and government priority and seen to asap.”
Unfortunately, despite all the talk – well, when you can get a signal – this seems an issue likely to plague people travelling our regional roads for some time to come.