Tasmanians voice frustrations at poor mobile phone reception across the state

NO RECEPTION: An interstate visitor tries to get phone reception from atop Launceston's Windmill Hill. Reception just half an hour's drive from Launceston city centre is reported as 'patchy' to 'nonexistent'. Picture: Scott Gelston.

NO RECEPTION: An interstate visitor tries to get phone reception from atop Launceston's Windmill Hill. Reception just half an hour's drive from Launceston city centre is reported as 'patchy' to 'nonexistent'. Picture: Scott Gelston.

Picking up your phone to make a quick call is such an automatic gesture these days, it’s a shock when the unwelcome ‘No Reception’ notice appears.

But for many regional Tasmanians, a lack of mobile phone reception is not a rare thing: it’s a fact of life.

A call-out by The Examiner for stories of life without reliable phone coverage across the state generated nearly 100 responses.

A child with anaphylaxia; a horse riding injury with no way to call for help; elderly relatives living alone; major highways without phone reception – car accidents, bushfires, snakebites.

These were just some of the stories sent through, from the north coast to the south, east to west.

Mathinna resident Lyn Robins has no mobile phone coverage and unreliable UHF radio reception. She relies on her landline, which can be disabled by poor weather.

It’s a 32-kilometre trip for her to get mobile phone reception.

“The township of Mathinna has no phone coverage … we regularly lose the landline after storms because of trees coming down or whatever else,” she said.

If we had mobile phone coverage it would make it so much easier for the emergency services. - Mathinna fire chief Robert Parsons.

“It becomes very isolated out here and there has been times when we’ve been very worried for people out here with ill health.”

Mrs Robins said she has frequently come across car accidents on the roads between Mathinna and Launceston.

The Mathinna community, together with Break O’Day Council, is fighting for mobile coverage for their region.

Like Mrs Robins, Mathinna’s fire brigade chief Robert Parsons is concerned about the potential consequences of having no mobile coverage.

“Once the emergency services are in the Mathinna area, they have problems with the radio communication,” he said.

“We had a fire about three weeks ago up in the back of Mathinna, we had no radio communication to comms in Hobart whatsoever.

“So I had to actually leave the fire, come back out to the fire station … to use the radio to get a message through to comms to say they needed to send another vehicle for water.

“If we had mobile phone coverage it would make it so much easier for the emergency services.”

During the June 2016 floods, Mr Parsons said landlines were washed out, leaving the Mathinna community without any communication for seven days.

“I’ve been out to car accidents out in Griffin Park and places like that, and even police have no communications whatsoever, their radios won’t work,” Mr Parsons said.

The Tasmania Fire Service’s district officer for state operations, Greg Butters, said that in the event of a bushfire the TFS used local radio, text and voice messages to mobile phones and landlines through the Telstra network to keep residents informed.

“[TFS] also uses traditional media outlets, social media and the TFS website to communicate bushfire information and warnings,” he said.

“In the event of an emergency situation, TFS has the ability to identify human settlement areas where there is little or no phone coverage and modify processes to communicate with them.”

For communities like Mathinna, Mr Butters said the TFS was developing Bushfire Response Plans that identify communication black spots.

“Each community is advised through the community protection planning process of the most dependable means to access bushfire information, and any limitations associated with the receipt of warnings,” Mr Butters said.

Break O’Day Council general manager John Brown said that the council was pushing hard for better mobile phone coverage. 

“Increased coverage [at Mathinna] and also another black spot area is out through the North-East, so the Weldborough area which will help service [the area],” Mr Brown said.

“We’ve got a new tower going into Pyengana, but it’s on the floor of the valley so it’s not going to have a huge amount of coverage – it’ll have a bit.”

Mr Brown said the council was lobbying the federal government and making applications through the black spot programme for multiple carrier towers.

BLACK SPOTS: A screenshot of the federal government's National Black Spot Program, showing blue community-reported black spots across Tasmania, King Island and Flinders Island.

BLACK SPOTS: A screenshot of the federal government's National Black Spot Program, showing blue community-reported black spots across Tasmania, King Island and Flinders Island.

“It’s a big issue up in Mathinna because there’s some free camping areas up there,” he said.

“In this day and age there should be coverage.”

Telstra area general manager Michael Patterson said Telstra was working with the Mathinna community to investigate “the possibility of installing a small cell at the local exchange that will provide 4GX coverage to the town”.

“We are in the final stages of this and hope to update the community soon,” Mr Patterson said.

“We are rolling out expanded 3G and 4G mobile coverage to 14 locations across Tasmania under the Federal Government’s Mobile Black Spot Program and we expect to bring a number of those online in the next few months.”

The federal mobile black spot program identifies areas with poor mobile phone reception across regional and rural Australia for the installation of new towers.

The second round of the program was announced in December 2016 to deliver 266 new or upgraded mobile base stations nationally.

Under the program, Telstra is building 14 new or upgraded Tasmanian stations and Vodafone is building 17, with the company funding a further four stations. Optus is building two.

Are you a regional Tasmanian with no phone coverage? Email your thoughts to lucy.stone@fairfaxmedia.com.au