Growing fears about Telstra’s commitment to its universal service obligation (USO) to maintain telephone landlines have prompted a cry from parents in remote Australia.
The Productivity Commission last year recommended the USO be removed from landlines because increasingly Australian homes now relied on mobile telephones and faster internet access via the National Broadband Network.
However, families in regional areas point out they are still plagued by a lack of mobile service coverage in vast areas of rural Australia which also have unreliable internet connectivity.
No power means no internet
They also suffer frequent blackouts to electricity services, or depend on their own generators to power the internet when it often works best late at night.
South West NSW delegates to this year’s federal Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA) conference were fully supported in their request for the organisation to lobby the federal government to ensure the USO remained on standard telephone lines in rural areas.
For those of us in mobile black spots larger than Sydney and its environs, sole reliance on Sky Muster for voice calls would be a huge step backwards
The conference was told for those living in rural and remote areas such as Balranald, the Productivity Commission’s recommendation was not an option.
Unlike current landlines, voice over the internet protocol connections required electricity, and VOIP was unreliable, even if power was available, especially for families relying on the Sky Muster satellite service.
“For those of us in mobile black spots spanning areas larger than Sydney and its environs, sole reliance on Sky Muster for voice calls would be a huge step backwards,” a Balranald submission to the conference stated.
“The latency issues with delayed lags on satellite, combined with weather issues and electricity outages means Sky Muster can’t be relied on 24 hours a day as per the requirements of the USO – this is extremely problematic for distance education.”
Without a Telstra landline there would also be no way of reporting blackouts which happened frequently in the Balranald area, especially given the area’s limited mobile coverage was also frequently disrupted in storms and blackouts, too.
Balranald branch is also leading ICPA’s call for relevant government ministers to prioritise expanding mobile coverage around remote schools.
Black spot frustration
Parents pointed to Clare Public School, which sits in outback Mungo National Park between Broken Hill and Griffith and within a 15,000 square kilometre mobile black spot.
Apart from its teaching role, the school, like many in remote areas, was also the emergency evacuation point for the district in situations such as bushfires, and it held the Royal Flying Doctor medical chest and a defibrillator.
Parents were angry mobile black spot funding was frequently provided for “fringe areas” near good mobile coverage zones while really remote locations where mobile services would have a huge impact, were not being prioritised.
“The time for telcos applying (for special government black spot funding assistance) to service areas that deliver the most profit must stop.”
However, Telstra Country Wide director of consumer sales and service, Jenny West assured the ICPA conference the national telco was “very committed” to working with the parent body to focus on the big issues impacting on remote life, particularly education.
Telstra Go success
She highlighted this year’s release of the Telstra Go repeater which revolutionised reception for mobile users in remote areas, and the roll out of the small cell co-investment program giving isolated localities access to a “lite” internet network service around a school, roadhouse or community centre.
Trialled for six months with ICPA members, Telstra Go has typically lifted mobile reception in vehicles or at home from one bar to full capacity for many regional customers, without drowning out other neighbouring users, as illegal boosters are prone to do.
We’ve been able to ensure schools or local services have access to email, business banking or do a Google search on the internet
Ms West highlighted the feedback from one customer near Charters Towers in North Queensland whose new repeater took his mobile signal from just one bar on a 3G network to five bars on 4G, with 65 megabits per second.
She said 250 small cell satellite-based internet were being established in partnership with local communities including councils and mining companies to provide 4G access to the internet in a restricted zone around a base station.
“You don’t get Netflix capacity, but we’ve been able to ensure schools or local services have access to email, business banking or do a Google search on the internet.”
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