Hangin’ on the telephone

Experts dash hopes for state-wide mobile phone coverage

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MOBILE FRUSTRATIONS: The Dridens, Amphitheatre, are among many Victorian primary producers experiencing frustration with their mobile phone service.

MOBILE FRUSTRATIONS: The Dridens, Amphitheatre, are among many Victorian primary producers experiencing frustration with their mobile phone service.

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Mobile phone blackspots are likely to remain for many years, according to leading experts

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Leading telecommunications experts have dashed hopes Victoria will ever be entirely free of mobile phone blackspots.

The Victorian Farmers Federation has asked for a future government to spend $600 million on upgrading the state’s phone and internet coverage.

The VFF has also been campaigning for more reliable power supplies .

The State government has promised $56 million, over five years, while the coalition says it’ll spend $30 million, over four years, to boost mobile connectivity across Victoria.

But RMIT University’s Associate Professor in Network Engineering Mark Gregory warned that as more remote areas required mobile coverage, the amount governments were spending had to stretch further.

Both the Federal and State governments have invested in a co-funding model, with telecommunications companies stumping up for part of the cost of towers.

Assoc Prof Gregory said as the more accessible sites were filled in, the government’s contribution increased markedly, meaning funding would be stretched to cover more of construction costs.

“If you look at the Federal blackspot program, in round one, the Federal government put in 28 per cent of the total pool, in round three, that increased to 55pc of the total pool.”

As an example, government funding of around $30 million would pay for about 100 towers.

“It could be as much as 130, depending on the funding split.”

“Will we ever get complete coverage?” Assoc Prof Gregory said.

“The answer to that is most likely no.

“You do roads, you do tourist spots, you are doing coverage around towns and groups of houses, but when you get past that, there is still a huge amount of land that is not being covered.”

Pork barreling

He warned governments could also be prone to putting towers in areas where they were not necessarily required.

“Obviously there is a degree of pork barreling in there, you would think marginal seats, they want to hold onto, they would pork barrel most.”

He said telecommunications companies were also looking for a return on investment, so would target areas where there was large community involvement, such as sporting fields, or popular beaches.

“I would say we have reasonable coverage in most areas. However, we do still have places where it’s been identified coverage could be better for customers.

“I’m sure everyone would like coverage everywhere, but that’s unrealistic, in some cases.”

And Coutts Communications managing director, Professor Reg Coutts, said promising to eliminate blackspots was perceived as a vote winner.

“It’s better than kissing babies, but not by much,” Prof Coutts said.

Both sides of politics had engaged in blaming the other, for continued poor coverage.

He said it was unlikely Victoria would ever get full mobile coverage.

“The best question to ask is, how many communities, or votes, will spending influence?”

He said the laws of physics dictated how mobile telephone towers worked.

“With money, you can overcome anything, as long it's within the laws of physics.”

“You get blackspots in places that are even in the middle of metropolitan areas.”

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Limited coverage

Assoc Prof Gregory said Australia’s biggest mobile network, Telstra, could not guarantee complete coverage.

While Telstra’s mobile phone coverage map showed much of the state could receive between two and 75 megabits of data per second, it was not entirely accurate.

“This is like saying how long is a piece of string – in other words, you could get nothing, or you could get great coverage, but we're going to shade the area anyway – and put a disclaimer at the bottom,” Assoc Prof Gregory said.

Telstra’s Network Commercial and Construction Engineering executive director Sriharan Amirthalingam said the company’s mobile network reached 99.4 per cent of the country.

But on its website, Telstra has the following disclaimer:

“Mobile device coverage depends on where you are, the device you are using and whether it has an external antenna attached.”

It also says the Telstra mobile coverage maps displayed were created using tools that predict the likely areas of outdoor coverage.

“ We have not individually tested every particular location within the identified outdoor coverage areas for coverage,” the disclaimer said.

“This means that while the footprint of outdoor coverage outlined on the maps is generally accurate, there may be some areas described as being within the outdoor coverage area shown where your device will not work.”

Actual outdoor coverage could be degraded, or not existent in specific locations, due to certain geographic features or as a result of the device used.

“Geographic features that may reduce or block outdoor coverage could include formations, such as hills and mountains or even trees.”

Farmer frustration

Mobile blackspots were a frustration, as well as an impediment to business, say Victoria’s farmers.

Graeme Ellis, a sheep and crop farmer at Bradvale and Mannibadar, western Victoria, said coverage depended on the property.

 “You don’t want to get into a serious conversation, you may not finish it,” Mr Ellis said.

He said the service frequently cut out.

“Some days it’s non-existent, the next day you can get a phone call – it gets very frustrating,” Mr Ellis said.

 “We learn to get around these things.

“If you have something that refers to farming that you want to do, you make sure you are in a position where you can get a phone call.

“It’s sad, but true.”

Paul and Jenni Driden run around 2000 head of Merinos, near Amphitheatre, central Victoria.

“It’s patchy, we can get messages when you are in the driveway, or feeding the dogs, that’s about it, Mr Driden said.

“I don’t even bother carrying my mobile on the weekend – you just don’t bother, you know you’re not going to get a service.”

Ms Driden said lack of a service was very frustrating.

“I just walk down the paddock and pick a spot, to get a coverage bar, to get messages,” Ms Driden said.

“But I just don’t get contacted, people don’t call me.

‘The landline has an answering machine, but people don’t leave a message, if they can’t get through to you.

“They want to get through to you, then and there, and if you’re on a farm, you’re not inside.”

She said everyone should be able to get mobile coverage.

“They only think of the Melbourne people - country people are left on the sidewalk, as usual.”

Government role

Read more: Mixed report card on major parties’ policies 

Victorian Farmers Federation president David Jochinke told this year’s Regional Telecommunications Review, run by the Commonwealth every three years, inadequate phone and internet coverage was an impediment to regional business growth and development.

“Accessing both data and voice services will boost regional economic growth as well as improve productivity for agriculture,” Mr Jochinke said.

 “To ensure basic provision of essential services, in an increasingly digital world, there is a role for Governments at both a Federal and State level to invest in upgrading and growing the footprint of data and voice telecommunications.

“Those in the regions need access to essential services, emergency services, and other government services, and without quality telecommunications these government services are slow, delayed, unworkable or unavailable.”

He said there was a market failure to provide cheap, quality voice and data services to regionally dispersed individuals and organisations.

“This market failure should be addressed by increasing competition in the market and, where there is public benefit, direct government investment,” Mr Jochinke said.

“Unlocking the benefits of telecommunications will bring a revolutionary change to agriculture.”

Implementation of exciting technologies, being developed to significantly improve productivity, were restricted by telecommunications. 

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