By ERWIN CHLANDA
Telstra, for now at least, is adopting a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to the mobile phone fiasco at the Finke and the recent Ulysses meeting (pictured), and the ongoing problems with slow internet connections and call drop-outs south of the MacDonnell range.
We’re upgrading the service but it will take up to two years, and we’re not prepared to deploy “cells on wheels” – mobile transmitters – to bridge the gap. That, in summary, is the blunt message of Brian O’Keeffe, Telstra’s general manager for the NT.
He says customers dissatisfied with what they are getting can get a refund but enquiries by the Alice Springs News Online have shown that the service of other providers is even poorer, and the satellite option is hugely expensive.
It is clear that Telstra has vastly oversold its service, now having far more users than the network can handle efficiently, yet charging people getting a poor service the same as those who have trouble-free reception.
No warning is given to users, when they sign up, that in some areas the service is inferior and will be for some time – something that became obvious at least a year ago.
Meanwhile Telstra has known for some time that someone is interfering with its signals but has clearly done nothing to stop that.
Mr O’Keeffe says “we can usually tell” when interfering devices are being used but it is up to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to take action.
When the News enquired with ACMA a spokesman told us last week: “I have run it by our field operations and interference team and they report there is nothing active with them in Alice Springs so it would appear there has been no complaint or referral made yet.”
Mr O’Keeffe lumps in users well within the small municipal area of Alice Springs with people in remote areas.
O’KEEFFE: From a commercial perspective, think about the number of people around the country, big, big vast country, massive size, to give coverage to people on the fringe, that would be a huge expense. We have to take into consideration my shareholders.
NEWS: We are talking about people inside the small municipal area of the major regional town in a 1500 km radius. They are between the airport and the town centre. They are not on the fringe. If they are on the fringe then it is because your service is absolutely inadequate. Alice Springs is the major service town in Central Australia. We’re not talking about a remote cattle station.
O’KEEFFE: We have challenges in the outer suburbs of Darwin and Katherine, it’s something that’s not unique to you guys in Alice Springs. You’ve got to consider things like precedent.
NEWS: So what you are telling me is that it will take up to a year to get an acceptable service, you have mobile transmitters but you are not going to use them in this interim period, you are not giving people the service they are paying for, although there have been complaints now for at least 12 months. Is this a fair summary?
O’KEEFFE: There are other options. There are satellite providers. We are not the only internet service provider. If you are not happy with your service we are quite happy to give you a refund. That’s on the table.
He is encouraging users experiencing problems to install antennae – at their cost. Mr O’Keeffe does not dispute that he has available “cell on wheels” mobile transmitters but they need good power supply and be connected to a fibre network.
“You can’t just pop it in the middle of the desert,” he says. “You need Town Council approval to hook it up.”
We put to him that there is a good power supply throughout Alice Springs’ rural area, that it is not the middle of the desert and asked him where the fibre network goes to. He says fibre is “running through Alice Springs to Darwin and down to Adelaide” but would not disclose any more about the network.
“Because of our competitors, obviously,” he says. “Optus, Vodaphone, it’s not something we publish.”
There are six initiatives under way now. Mr O’Keeffe says within no more than one year the tower at the airport will be modified to provide better coverage for the rural area, and the tower at West Gap (on top of the range) will be beaming south a 4G signal, such as the main part of the town has.
Within no more than two years there will be new transmitters at Larapinta, Araluen and Undoolya.
A mobile base station is planned for Ross Highway but that’s “a long way away, we’ve not secured a site yet,” says Mr O’Keeffe. “Once we have all of those in place our network will be very strong, and will better handle events such as the Finke.”
UPDATE Tuesday 10am:
A Telstra spokesperson emailed this morning about the signal interference: “We have looked into this issue and it was resolved on 12 June following an investigation. We are not able to provide comment on the source of the interference.”
By ERWIN CHLANDA