Intolerable phone situation in Steinbrook taken to the minister

Leeza Wishart atop a hillside on her 'Optus chair' to seek a signal, although she said it's a bleak job when the cold westerlies blow.
Leeza Wishart atop a hillside on her 'Optus chair' to seek a signal, although she said it's a bleak job when the cold westerlies blow.

Lack of reliable telecommunication infrastructure in the Steinbrook/Rocky River district southeast of Tenterfield is again causing concern as residents contend with very limited mobile phone reception and a very unreliable landline network.

Billirimba Road resident Leeza Wishart is championing the efforts of her local community to bring the dire situation to the attention of Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher.

After Mrs Wishart invested considerable time and effort contacting residents in the district to gauge the extent of the problem, 21 families added their names and phone numbers to her own in her original letter to the minister back in August.

The community is imploring him to direct Telstra to upgrade the Steinbrook and Rocky River Telephone Exchanges and to include the district in the Federal Government's $380 million Mobile Black Spot Funding Program.

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Landlines in the Steinbrook/Rocky River region have been out eight times since November last year, often for an extended period, and mobile reception is virtually non-existent in the region. The dire telecommunications problems came to a head last summer when bushfires ripped through the area.

There were widespread reports that Steinbrook Hall had burned down. The hall still stands (somewhat miraculously), but Mrs Wishart fears that the lack of phone service could very well lead to tragedy, let alone the inconvenience it causes on a daily basis.

"Telstra is not fulfilling its Universal Service Obligation," she said. "The landline can be out for up to two weeks at a time, and on occasions is lucky to be fixed before we lose it again.

"It is apparent to me that Telstra is using bandaid technology to repair our local copper network. Sometimes it's a storm that causes these outages, but nine-times-out-of-10 it's equipment failure."

Steinbrook Hall is the designated emergency evacuation centre for the district, but it has no mobile phone reception and an unreliable landline which may mean there is no phone at an Evacuation Centre to call triple-0, Mrs Wishart said.

She's aware of Rocky River property owners who used to maintain a landline for when they visited, but have given up on paying for a service that was seldom in working order.

Using mobile phones as a backup is rarely an option. The Wisharts, for instance, have four blue tick mobile phones: two connected to the Telstra service and two to Optus. While Telstra is arguably the service of choice for those in more remote areas, Mrs Wishart noted poorer reception when moving to a new Telstra phone.

Now the only signal the family can pick up at the home property is one spot where the Optus phones usually work. That spot now has a chair in place, designated the 'Optus seat', for phone calls when the landline is out. Mrs Wishart said it's not much fun making mobile calls on the side of a hill in the middle of winter with a bitterly cold westerly blowing.

"Our place is a tinder box at present and it's really stressful as the hot weather approaches," Mrs Wishart said, fearing a repeat of last season's fires.

"I am aware of a number of people in Steinbrook who are Telstra Priority Assist customers due to medical conditions. They have to travel considerable distances to get a mobile phone signal when the landline is out and this could have catastrophic consequences in a health emergency.

The Wisharts have satellite broadband so VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls are a possibility, but the delayed response nature of such calls plus limited, expensive data allowances, make them impractical.

With two daughters at high school (one doing her HSC) and COVID-19 distancing them from family and friends, the Wisharts are typical of households in the area feeling very frustrated by the situation. They're paying $183.90 a month for a combination of landline, mobile and internet services that actually deliver very little connectivity.

"Our satellite broadband allowance of 50 gigabytes peak data costs us an exorbitant $59.95 per month," Mrs Wishart said. "City people wouldn't stand for this sort of service.

"In June 2019 I wrote to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher about the high cost and poor data allowances for satellite broadband customers and never received a response."

Mrs Wishart has sent two letters to the minister explaining the dire situation, copying in local federal member for New England Barnaby Joyce, with no response other than an acknowledgement of receipt. An approach to the office of state MP Janelle Saffin did elicit a response noting that it's a federal matter, although Mrs Wishart feels it's important to keep the state MP in the loop.

"Minister Fletcher before the release of the 2020 Federal Budget you touted that connectivity is the key to recovery in regional Australia," she wrote. "Please help our small community recover and thrive, and provide us with the connectivity all Australians have a right to, regardless of where they live."

Another resident did manage to secure a lengthy phone meeting with the minister's senior adviser on Monday, resulting in a flurry of emails between the minister's office and Telstra with the latter promising to look into the matter.

This resident feels that no number of mobile phone towers will resolve the issue, given the hilly terrain. A reliable landline service is a must and she is happy that the matter is now on the minister's radar, but is not holding her breath for the resolution.