Talk's not cheap in Tathra since mobile tower 'upgrade'

Tathra's Rob White said he was 'appalled' when his phone reception disappeared in the lead up to Christmas. Picture: Alasdair McDonald
Tathra's Rob White said he was 'appalled' when his phone reception disappeared in the lead up to Christmas. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

A community still coming to terms with a devastating bushfire a year is forced to buy new handsets to connect to a recently upgraded mobile phone network.

The removal of a temporary phone tower in Tathra on the NSW south coast, installed after the tragic March 2018 bushfire, and the installation of two small antennas has caused confusion and has meant many residents have had to buy brand new handsets.

While the town's base station, offering 3G and 4G coverage, was damaged during the fire, and has since been repaired, many residents assumed their phones would be compatible with new 4GX small cell antennas.

We had a sort of a false hope with the temporary tower after the bushfire, and some people even got rid of their landlines or didn't reconnect their line because they had mobile coverage, which was then gone a few days before Christmas.

Tathra's Rob White

The term 4G is short for the fourth-generation of worldwide wireless data telecommunications networks which has helped allow real-time video streaming flourish. That said, Telstra and Optus could be selling 5G commercial services within months in metropolitan areas.

After hearing residents' concerns, Tathra Post Office's Deb Alker drove through the small town with various affordable handsets, to discover what model of phone would best suit her customers depending on where they live.

"Six months' notice that people would have to get a new phone would've been great," the 2019 Citizen of the Year said.

"So, I've been going around to people's houses to see what's working and what's not.

"One guy told me he looks out his window at the small cell and he had no 3G reception, so we had to upgrade his handset for $140 and it's okay.

"It took a little while to teach him how to use it."

Ms Alker said she has even had company representatives drive throughout the town to see what phone models are working.

"As long as you have a 4G compatible handset you'll get some reception, but if you have 3G you'll have no reception, she said.

"Bay View Drive seems to be the worst at the moment, which used to be good."

Tathra's Rob White, who runs Tathra Beach House Apartments, said he was "appalled" when his phone reception disappeared in the lead up to Christmas last year.

"I stood under the small cell and my phone wasn't working. It was just ridiculous timing and poor management," he said.

"I started asking questions and Telstra told me if my phone was three or four years old it wouldn't work.

"I was just bewildered, I thought they were joking."

Community nominated mobile phone black spots across the region. Source: Australian Government National Map

Community nominated mobile phone black spots across the region. Source: Australian Government National Map

He was forced to spend $600 on an updated model, which he said many older residents cannot afford.

"For some people it is a real struggle, especially at the retirement village," he said.

"We had a sort of a false hope with the temporary tower after the bushfire, and some people even got rid of their landlines or didn't reconnect their line because they had mobile coverage, which was then gone a few days before Christmas."

Telstra said they consulted the community on new mobile coverage, and had offered short term loans of 4GX mobile phones to residents unable to use their existing devices during the Christmas period.

"This offer was not taken up by any residents," Telstra's regional general manager for NSW, Ann Jakle, said.

Ms Jakle said mobile phone coverage can be impacted by terrain, obstructions including trees or buildings, and the type of handset being used.

"The small cells provide improved mobile coverage on the 4GX network in places where historically there was minimal or no coverage from the main base station," she said.

"Residents who previously had 3G mobile coverage should still be receiving similar levels of coverage to that delivered prior to the installation of the temporary base station that was located in the town after the bushfire in late 2018.

"For residents who want to access the new 4GX service delivered by the small cell antennas, they will need to be using a 4GX compatible mobile phone."

Minister for Regional Services Senator Bridget McKenzie said this month, "reliable and effective mobile communications" are a "key driver" of the "enormous contribution" regional NSW makes to the country's economic growth.

"Greater availability of mobile services is a big deal," she said. 

"It means staying safe in remote areas, keeping in contact with family and friends, unlocking access to online health and education services as well as increased tourism and business opportunities."

Ms McKenzie announced 54 new base stations are planned for the latest round of the government's black spot program, which will not include Tathra.