For some residents in rural Australia, there is no way to call for help. One federal MP says telcos are letting them down when they most need it
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Last year, Hannah Sparks got a call from her partner Will Picker telling her he had an accident, but before he could give her any more details of what had happened or where he was, they lost the phone connection.
Picker had been mustering sheep on his motorbike bike coming down a steep rise on their farm just outside Bigga in southern NSW when his front tyre got stuck in a wombat hole. He was thrown over the bike and fractured two vertebrae.
But the accident occurred in a place with no mobile coverage, nor was he able to make an emergency SOS call.
Despite the pain and the risk that he knew movement could cause to his spinal injury, he decided to crawl to get mobile service in case it was a life-threatening injury, such as internal bleeding or a punctured organ.
After crawling nearly a kilometre to reach a roadside, he was able to get just enough connection to call Sparks. Though it cut out, she had a rough idea of where her partner would be to call an ambulance.
When Sparks found Picker it had been nearly two hours since the accident. He was conscious but in a bad way – pale, cold and lying on his front, unable to respond to her because he was so focused on his pain.
A helicopter took Sparks and Picker to receive medical treatment in Orange, where a team of 20 doctors was waiting.
Treatment would reveal that Picker’s fractured vertebra were floating. They discovered if the vertebra had moved a millimetre more and touched his spinal cord, they would have done permanent damage.
It’s these sorts of stories that are putting pressure on federal MPs to sign on to a private member’s bill by Berowra MP Julian Leeser to bring greater accountability to Australian telcos. Seventeen MPs have already signed the bill.
If passed, the bill would impose a new universal service obligation (USO) to ensure Australian consumers with a mobile phone were able to make a call or access the internet inside their home or workplace.
It would also force a new customer service guarantee to stipulate anyone who was left without service at their home or business for more than six hours between 8am and 8pm over a month would get a month of free service from their provider.
Leeser said 40% of the contact between his constituents his office relate to telecommunications. He said he found it particularly “annoying” telcos claim there’s phone coverage when to all practical purposes, calls cannot be made without leaving homes or businesses.
“It might be coverage in their language but it’s not coverage in any normal human beings’ language,” Leeser said.
“Because if you can’t use your phone inside your house, it’s not real coverage. If you can’t use your phone inside your business, it’s not real coverage and that’s why we have suggested the universal service obligation.”
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The Communications Alliance and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), representing the telcos, described Leeser’s bill as an “impractical non-solution”, though they recognised their customers frustrations.
“The draft bill includes measures that are impossible and/or infeasible to implement or would impose crippling costs on consumers and the industry. If brought into law, these proposals would act against consumers’ interests by discouraging industry investment.”
But Leeser said the bill was designed precisely for consumers, rather than the telcos.
National Farmers Federation chief executive officer Tony Mahar said modern infrastructure, including fast, competitively priced internet and reliable mobile phone coverage was crucial to retain and attract people and grow regional towns.
“The NFF-led goal for agriculture to tally $100bn in farm-gate value by 2030 hinges on connectivity capability,” Mahar said.
“This includes internet capable of, for example, transferring data direct from the tractor to the home office; of running telemetry across remote watering points and meeting the business, education and lifestyle needs of entire farming families – connectivity on par with that enjoyed by urban Australians.”
Leeser likened big telcos to the big banks prior to the financial services royal commission, accusing the service providers of not meeting community expectations on mobile phone coverage.
“People expect a high standard of accountability and the telcos, like the banks are not meeting community expectations.”
Leeser also accused Telstra, as the “monopoly provider for large parts of my community” of selling people equipment to boost their signal with varying degrees of success.
“They are happy to sell them, they are happy to make the promise about coverage, they are happy to receive the money from the bills but they are not actually happy to provide the coverage. And I think that’s wrong.
“People should be able to get the service they have paid for. And that’s why we have put all these customer service measures in the bill because we really want to force the telcos to change.”
However as a private member’s bill, it would need formal backing from the Coalition and Leeser acknowledged while communications minister Paul Fletcher was sympathetic, the bill was not government policy.
Fletcher’s office said “members of parliament are entitled to their views”.
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