5-day 3G, 4G outage in distant group brought on by rodents sparks requires tailor-made providers

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An extended phone and internet outage in one of the most remote Aboriginal communities in South Australia was likely caused by rodents and has sparked a call for new approaches to telecommunications in the bush.

Important points:

  • The 3G and 4G services were suspended for five days on January 15th and included telephone, Internet, EFTPOS and ATM services
  • NBN Co wants to increase the number of people in Pukatja connected to the Sky Muster satellite service
  • The Internet advocacy group BIRRR calls for tailor-made approaches for the introduction of remote services

Telstra services were shut down in Pukatja on January 15th, meaning that phone calls, EFTPOS and ATMs could not be used.

The outage meant people couldn’t buy goods and fuel with bank cards and couldn’t withdraw cash.

Services were restored on January 20th.

Pukatja is an Aboriginal community in the APY countries in the far north of South Australia, 1,400 kilometers north of Adelaide.

Sarah Ken and her husband Joel had to drive 40 minutes to nearby Fregon to speak to ABC during the outage, saying it would make life even more difficult.

“Living here and being far away is already a huge challenge. Services are already limited,” she said.

“It is just crazy to go without telephone service and Internet service.

“You expect people in town to react very quickly, but you can’t have the same expectations out here.”

Joel and Sarah Ken with their daughter Kaylah were without a mobile connection for five days. (Delivery: Sarah Ken)

Mr Ken, who is from Pukatja, said that the local people, Anangu, usually only buy groceries to meet their daily needs.

“It affects us more than the people of the city that people are not really able to store food,” he said.

“Anangu people buy food during the day and eat it during the day, and being unable to do so is the main culprit for Anangu people.”

Rodents eat lines

Telstra apologized for the inconvenience caused by the outage, which affected both 3G and 4G services, but not NBN satellite services.

Telstra apologized for the inconvenience caused by the prolonged outage. (ABC News: Chris Gillette)

A company spokesman said the failure was likely due to rodents feeding on transmission lines.

Chris Cusack, general manager of NBN Local, said that more than 20 percent of the premises in Pukatja are connected to the NBN.

“NBN recognizes the need to continue increasing the number of households and businesses affiliated with the NBN,” he said.

Mr Cusack said NBN recently met with representatives from the APY Lands to install a Sky Muster Plus link.

“Participation in the project is being considered for the Pukatja community,” he said.

“NBN also plans to visit the region in the coming months for engagement and training sessions.”

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On-demand approach

The failure of Pukatja resulted in renewed calls to a rural telecommunications advocacy group to find a tailored approach to bush services.

Kristy Sparrow of Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) said the services need to be tailored specifically to each community.

“Every community in every state and territory in Australia is very different,” she said.

A group of people look at a satellite while it is being built. Sky Muster satellites aim to provide broadband internet services to hundreds of thousands of distant Australians. (Supplied: NBN)

“It could be a highly tourist area. If you look at something like Mallacoota, Victoria, it’s only 1,000 residents, but it grows to 9,000 during the tourist season.

“The connectivity options available to that particular community when they have 1,000 people don’t match 9,000 people.”

Ms. Sparrow said Aboriginal communities also need special attention.

“We find that there are cultural differences and that connectivity is better possible through community WiFi,” she said.

“Staff who work at local schools and health centers in these communities may have access to a different type of connection that suits their needs.”

Ms. Sparrow said people in remote areas couldn’t rely on just one form of phone or internet connection.

“Some of these outages are beyond the control of the carriers, so having a backup connection is always a wise decision for these communities,” she said.