It took all day for paramedic Paul Gaughan to get word that a Munglinup farmer was badly injured.
The area on Western Australia’s south coast is known for poor phone reception. So, after falling on the property and sustaining a suspected broken leg, Mr Gaughan said the farmer was forced to wait hours to access help.
“They tried crawling,” he said. “[But] they had a broken leg, I understand.
Munglinup area residents say the incident, which occurred a few weeks ago, illustrates a danger they face daily: Living in an area with poor phone reception.
About 100 people from the region recently came together — along with Telstra representatives, federal MP Rick Wilson and state MP Peter Rundle — and voiced concerns about a number of issues, including the area’s poor and patchy phone service.
Earlier this week, the federal government also announced an independent review into regional telecommunications.
The review’s report, including its recommendations, are due to be handed to the federal government by December 31, 2021.
Local farmer Kirk Whiting said the poor phone service was impacting just about every aspect of life in the region, but his biggest concern was safety.
“Lately, the government has been pushing the ‘Wander Out Yonder’ campaign,” Mr Whiting said.
“In Munglinup, we’ve seen a massive increase in backpackers around the area.
“Now, the beach in Munglinup has zero network provided to it. And, obviously, the backpackers don’t know the roads that well.
“It’s just a matter of time before there’s an accident.
Mr Whiting said that the area’s phone service had only worsened in recent years, likely because the phone towers were in higher demand than ever.
Now, he said, only about half his farming area received service, which made it difficult to use the latest agricultural technology.
“Telematics is a system that’s on a tractor these days,” Mr Whiting said.
“It can give you the location, any yield data, positioning of the tractor and Remote Display Access (RDA).
“Our workforce is primarily backpackers and unskilled labour.
“The real nitty-gritty parts they can’t work out for themselves. They can call us on the phone, when they’re [able to get service], and we can access their screen, look at what they’re looking at and guide them through and help them.
“They could be 50 kilometres away. It could be 2am.
“It’s quite a big blow. We pay a pretty large subscription fee to have this service on our machines.”
Tower to be upgraded soon
The Munglinup area is serviced by four Telstra mobile towers, three of which are 4G and one which Telstra says will be upgraded from 3G to 4G before the end of the year.
Telstra also pointed out that authorities advise the public not to rely on mobile service in an emergency.
Mr Gaughan suggested people should prepare an emergency plan that considered the communication options available, such as [two-way] radios, landlines and satellite phones.
He also encouraged people to download the Emergency+ app, which uses GPS to provide emergency service personnel with exact details of a persons’ location.
Federal Member for O’Connor Rick Wilson said the community was made aware of devices that could help their connectivity at the recent meeting.
He also said the community had been encouraged to look at partnering with the Shire of Esperance and Goldfields-Esperance Development Commission to seek funds in future rounds of the Commonwealth’s Mobile Black Spot Program.
Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the application period for the current round of the Mobile Black Spot Program had closed and applications were being assessed.
He said another round would open later this year.
‘We’ve been left behind’
But Simeon Roberts says he has been down that road before.
In 2017 — after the devastating 2015 fires — the farmer from nearby Cascade was part of an application for Mobile Blackspot Funding, which he said was rejected.
After the fires, Mr Roberts said, they community thought it had a real chance of receiving the funding because authorities and residents had highlighted the fact that the area had telecommunications problems.
He said the community now had another application pending.
According to a federal government website, during the first five rounds of the Mobile Black Spot program, more than $836 million had been invested, delivering more than 1,200 base stations across Australia.
This amount included contributions from state and local governments, mobile network operators, businesses and local communities.
But, Mr Roberts said, given how essential telecommunications are for people in isolated areas, the pool of funding available in the Mobile Black Spot Program needed to increase.
“I think we’ve been left behind. It’s been a very progressive, productive agricultural zone and I don’t think the infrastructure is keeping up with our needs.”
Mr Roberts said many of his workers came from cities and expected good phone and internet service, and would even pass up a job if that was not available.
He also said the services were required for school programs and people doing online studies.
“The infrastructure that we work off — with our social fabric, our schools, our telecommunications — [is[ not keeping up with the needs of the industry.
“They need to go back to the drawing board and have a think about how they want [agriculture] to be and if they want families to be there running farms and how people are going to attract staff in all areas.”