There’s been a noticeable spike in complaints about mobile phone reception across the New England, but the major telcos deny there’s any reason for it.
Call drop outs, delayed SMS messages, and losing reception entirely for hours or even days at a time have been recurring refrains across social media in recent weeks. The anecdotal evidence aligns with the an NFF survey 18 months ago which found 45% of respondents believed the quality of the mobile
network coverage at the main residence had declined in the past 12 months; and 50% of respondents reported the reliability of mobile network coverage had declined. But both Telstra and Optus say they aren’t aware of the apparent degradation of mobile phone reception.
Optus said some customers in the Moree area may have experienced outages after a power station linked to the Bellata Hub site was impacted by the recent flooding. A spokesperson for the company said a generator has been deployed at the site and they appreciate people’s patience while they work on returning full service.
The region has been particularly jumpy about losing mobile phone coverage since Telstra upgraded the tower in Narrabri to 5G last December, leaving the area without mobile phone service for a week in the middle of harvest, and without notifying customers before they lost service.
Mike Marom, Telstra’s Regional General Manager for NSW, acknowledged the lack of warning messages and said they have investigated to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“We know that recent network upgrades in Narrabri and Guyra did cause a loss of service to customers for extended periods and we apologise for those that were impacted.”
“Unfortunately to do the upgrades we need to turn the base stations off for periods of time, but we always try to minimise impacts on customers where we can,” he said.
While only a few parts of the area have been upgraded to 5G, there is growing discontent with the way the upgrades are being managed and a perception the newer technology is, in part, to blame for the drop in service. Judy Slade says her reception has progressively gotten worse and now only wifi calling will work at her house.
“I am a Telstra customer and every time they upgrade I lose more service. 3G I had 4 bars, then along came 4G I dropped to 1 or no bars and if you move your head whilst on the phone it would drop out, now 5G I have mostly nothing so I have to use my wifi,” she wrote.
Both Telstra and Optus denied that the improved technology would be causing the decreasing reception. Optus said there may be localised coverage issues while the new technology is turned on, but it should not affect voice calls as they are not carried on the 5G network.
Jeannet van der Hilliard of Kelly’s Plains said reception is terrible at her place with calls dropping out and SMS messages being delayed or never arriving.
“Admittedly we are in the shadow of a hill so I don’t expect reception to be fantastic, but reception has degraded over the past year or so I think due to the additional households now in the area with new subdivisions the towers are over-subscribed.”
The telcos admitted that the increasing population in many of our towns thanks to the pandemic fuelled internal migration will affect service, but that they are working to boost capacity.
“Demands on the Telstra mobile network across Australia continues to increase, with data usage increasing by 30% every year,” Mr Maron said.
“To keep up with demand, we are always working to improve our existing national network and add additional coverage and capacity.”
Last year Telstra added two new macro base stations in Armidale, improving coverage and capacity near the golf course, the Armidale Private Hospital, the Arboretum and generally increase the network capacity in the western part of Armidale. They also built a new macro base station on Baan Baa Kurrajong Creek Road in June 2022. Planned work this year this year includes constructing a new base station in Narrabri West and upgrading the 4G network at Barraba.
Meanwhile, Optus has eight new towers planned to go live in the New England region over the next two-three years, which they say will provide a significant coverage boost to the area.
“Optus is committed to a connected regional Australia and we’re working relentlessly on building our regional coverage to bring Australians our fastest network yet,” the Optus spokesperson said.
A federal parliamentary inquiry is currently underway into how we can improve mobile phone infrastructure in regional areas. Solutions being considered include multi-carrier mobile towers and other ways to share mobile phone infrastructure.
“Co-investment is a tool which would allow multiple telecommunications providers to invest in and share ‘multi-carrier’ mobile towers and related infrastructure,” Committee chair Brian Mitchell said.
A number of regional MPs including Nationals Leader David Littleproud and independent member for Indi Helen Haines are advocating for mandated domestic mobile roaming as part of the parliamentary inquiry’s investigations. This would make it compulsory for towers to be ‘unlocked’ and enable people to be able to use whatever tower is available, regardless of what company’s sim is in their phone.
Telstra is strongly opposed to the proposal to mandate roaming, likening it to requiring Coles to give part of their store to Woolworths and Aldi. Concerns have also been raised that roaming will not make a difference in areas where there are no towers for any company. And, despite the issue looming large on the political landscape for decades, we are no closer to getting those gaps in the network filled. Many locals reported that when you leave town, you’re lucky to get any service at all.
Vanessa travels between Glen Innes, Inverell, Bundarra and Bingara regularly and says the service is very patchy or non-existent once you leave the towns, but different carriers work in different places.
“Service at home is patchy with Telstra so I use wifi calling, but Optus service is non-existent. Optus at Bundarra works in town, but Telstra isn’t great,” Vanessa said.
Phil Williams also travels across the New England North West and Orana regions for work.
“The service from Werris Creek to Dubbo through the Liverpool Plains is terrible,” he said.
Deb Tatton from Coonamble agreed.
“Once you go past Gunnedah you might as well throw your phone out the window.”
There were also a lot of complaints about boosters, questions about their effectiveness, and resentment at being forced to pay for expensive equipment to get phones to work.
“I hate the fact that just because we live in the country that we need to purchase mobile phone reception extenders for both house and cars just so we can use a phone,” Vanessa said.
Elisa Brown from Black Mountain said they pay $100 a month with Telstra and only get service half the time, “so I think we’re just going to have to get an aerial”.
The parliamentary inquiry has one more public hearing scheduled this week before it begins to prepare its report.
Both telcos urged customers who are having issues to report it via their apps, phone line, or go into a store.