Regional phone reception affecting Mid West farming efforts

Edward ScownMidwest Times
Pindar farmer Andrew Thomas.
Camera IconPindar farmer Andrew Thomas. Credit: Tarleah Thomas

Poor phone reception in the Mid West is hurting the bottom line of businesses, including farmers who need to be connected to ensure their harvest efforts are maximised.

With harvest here, it’s crucial for farmers to have up-to-date market information on hand. But with frequent blackspots, that isn’t always possible. Coverage maps of various mobile providers tell the same story in the Mid West — a short drive out of Geraldton and you’re in the data dark ages.

Mid West Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Joanne Fabling said she struggled to find reception even along the coast.

“If I drive from (Geraldton) to Dongara, unless I have purchased a special booster, I won’t have any signal. Even when I’m a passenger, I can’t conduct any business,” she said. While there are smaller base stations in place to extend coverage to remote areas, they feed off the main towers, which Ms Fabling said were few and far between in the Mid West. This means when there is an issue with one tower, the signal in large areas can go down entirely.

“When Seroja happened, one tower went down, and it knocked out communications from Kalbarri to Exmouth ... (the network) is very fragile,” she said.

While Ms Fabling welcomed the investment government had put into the network, she said farmers were still struggling with accessing data, and it was cutting into their harvest profits.

“They rely on data for the markets … the information has all gone online, but the infrastructure isn’t there to keep up,” she said.

Morawa Shire president Karen Chappel said the town centre only had 3G access and farmers had to buy satellite devices to connect to the internet away from their homes. During power outages, battery backups for mobile towers often run out before power is restored. She said Telstra had plans to install batteries with a 12-hour capacity.

WA Farmers Federation CEO Trevor Whittington said the mobile network was “never going to be perfect in the bush” but farmers were frustrated and felt that inland populations had been neglected by government. “It’s easy to get 80 per cent coverage, but to get 90, 95 per cent is very difficult,” he said.

State and Federal Governments needed to incentivise telcos to build at least 200 phone towers between Esperance and Kalbarri to address blackspots, he added.

“They’re a private business, so it’s not worth it to them … they spend a million dollars, and only a few people use it,” he said.

In July, the WA Government committed $3.37m to build 14 mobile towers, five slated for the Mid West and Gascoyne coast.

Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan said good mobile connectivity was essential to reduce communication gaps and help during an emergency.

Telstra regional general manager Boyd Brown said Telstra was finalising plans to upgrade the network transmission link to the Mid West and provide new 4G coverage near Canna, which were expected to be finished by mid next year.

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