People in rural and regional areas are being put at risk by poor mobile and emergency communications, residents, emergency volunteers and experts say.
Residents of St Albans and the surrounding Macdonald Valley in the Hawkesbury region around 67km from Sydney are lobbying Telstra to improve mobile coverage in their area, arguing residents' lives are at risk in emergencies.
Residents in St Albans, north west of Sydney and their poor phone service from Telstra.From left,Bob Bolin, Jane Blacker, Ian Burns-Wood, Sherri McMahon pictured at the local hotel. Photo: Peter Rae Wednesday 13 March 2013.
The closest mobile base station is 22 kilometres away at Wisemans Ferry and this site also houses the infrastructure for the Government Radio Network (GRN) and the paging system used by emergency services during floods and bushfires.
Coverage for all of these communications systems is patchy at best.
Pecan farmer Jane Blacker, 68, who is also part of the Macdonald Valley Association and handles call outs for Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers in the event of emergencies, said the emergency pagers often simply did not work and communication between fire trucks and back to base was also an issue.
Residents in St Albans, north west of Sydney and their poor phone service from Telstra. Resident Bob Bolin with a Telstra phone cable that was knoked to the ground on Christmas down when a treet fell onto it. The cable still lies across the ground. Photo: Peter Rae Wednesday 13 March 2013.
"We would hate to get it to the stage of somebody actually dying because we can't get mobile reception or communications are so poor," Ms Blacker told Fairfax.
Sherri McMahon, deputy captain of the RFS St Albans brigade, said she had been involved in "several incidents" where the RFS had little or no communication.
Last December she arrived first on the scene at an accident about 21km north of St Albans and discovered a vehicle rolled on its roof and leaking fuel on to the road.
She had to drive a further 1.2km north before finding some mobile phone reception to notify fire control of what was happening.
"At a fire in 2012 at Cosy Nook again we had no communication with fire control, no mobile service, both the captain and senior deputy had to leave the scene of the fire to find a location where we could update fire control of what was happening," she said.
"These are regular incidents in our valley ... members left at the scene are down a vehicle and have no communications back to fire control and as such their lives could be placed in jeopardy."
Macdonald Valley residents recently spent days flooded in and McMahon said the lack of mobile phone coverage meant it was difficult to notify local residents before the water rose.
"Unfortunately it seems that those who have access to these early warning systems being implemented are the ones in areas least effected by emergencies," she said.
Telstra said it had conducted a "detailed review" of options for the St Albans area but there were "no current funded plans to increase the depth of coverage" as it was not commercially viable.
Telstra claims its NextG mobile network covers "more than 99 per cent of the population" but Elise Davidson of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) points out that this is not the same as 99 per cent of actual land mass.
Davidson said there were mobile blackspots throughout Australia and ACCAN had received similar complaints from a resident of Yeoval, in between Orange and Dubbo in NSW. She suspects the problem is partly due to the terrain.
"There are many places like this throughout Australia and absolutely lives are put at risk when emergency services can't make contact with each other and can't make contact with residents," she said.
While around one in three people live in regional Australia, the 2011-12 Regional Telecommunications Review found emergency communications deficiencies, which became clear in the aftermath of the Victorian bushfires and Queensland floods, remained unresolved.
The number one concern raised in consultations was the lack of adequate mobile services.
"The committee strongly believes that increased priority should be given to expanding the mobile coverage footprint in parts of regional Australia where it is not commercial to do so," the review recommended.
A spokeswoman for the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman said while Telstra was obligated to provide a reliable landline service (and fix telephone faults quickly), there was no legislative requirement for a similar standard of performance for mobile or internet services.
"As more Australians turn to these alternatives, it may be that mandatory performance standards will be required for mobile and internet services, but this has yet to gain government policy/regulatory support," the TIO spokesman said.
The NSW RFS said its private radio communications infrastructure was currently being upgraded across the state and "upgrades in the Hawkesbury area are currently 25 per cent complete with completion expected within months".
A spokeswoman for NSW Emergency Services Minister Michael Gallacher said work had been underway for some time on a national "public safety mobile broadband capability" for communications between all police and emergency services agencies but the Commonwealth last year only allocated half of the radio frequency spectrum required.
"Jurisdictions consider this reservation is unlikely to cater for the present and future operational needs of public safety agencies."