For many regional Australians, community is everything. So when poor mobile coverage leads to a breakdown in communication, everyone misses out. Reg Kidd of Orange, NSW, is on a mission to ensure that doesn’t happen, and he’s determined to see it through.
Reg Kidd doesn’t have a lot of down-time. A horticulturalist and sheep and cattle farmer by trade, he also provides training and agricultural consultancy services in Orange and the surrounding area, while representing the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and the New South Wales Farmers’ Association.
To put it bluntly, he needs to be connected.
Unfortunately for Reg, his property, while not far from town, suffers from patchy mobile reception. He recalls having better coverage with an ‘old brick phone’ that you had to carry over your shoulder. “I’m very close to Orange, I used to have to stand on the front verandah on one leg to talk on the phone…this is right on the edge of Orange, this is not central Australia.”
Reg’s job involves communicating with a slew of stakeholders – from business contractors, his colleagues at the farmers’ bodies, and apprentices he helps to train all over NSW. Health and safety is one of the clearest reasons to help improve regional mobile services and it’s critical that emergency services are contactable given the various hazards of living in the bush.
"When I’m training new staff, they may have a problem or something they want to ask me, so I need to be in contact with them” he says. “And of course when I’m travelling – if I break down, a tyre runs flat, or I have an accident on the road. You’ve got so much downtime in a vehicle. From here to Broken Hill is nine hours – you pull over at various stages to have a drink or re-fuel, where I could check for emails, texts, or phone calls. I could call and say ‘I’ve just pulled over’, or ‘I’m running late’, or ‘I’m out for 2-3 days’. I could be here, I could be in town, I could be anywhere – I don’t have to be right here [in my home].
He recalls a night where, after breaking down near Broken Hill following work at 2:30AM, it took close to four hours to wave down a passerby as his phone didn’t have reception to call anyone. For his business, however, he’s not willing to take that chance – enforcing a rule that none of his staff could drive at night, with certain stretches of road requiring two people (at significant cost).
As we’ve heard countless times in regional Australia, businesses are being held back by poor mobile coverage and productivity is suffering as a result.
“A market report comes out daily. If I’ve got my phone on me I can check out what the market was in Forbes. If I can’t find it through a text, I can ring a mate up who lives over there, or lives in Wagga Wagga, or lives in Casino, and say ‘what was the market like today?’ or ‘what’s the weather like?’ Those are important things from a business perspective.”
Reg points to the local farming community as a strong example of an industry in dire need of reliable mobile coverage.
“They’re dealing with overseas markets, they’re dealing with backpackers from France, or Holland, or Germany, for picking and boxing the fruit. I would have friends right now on a phone somewhere saying ‘can you have this many boxes of that grade of cherry on a truck down to Sydney tomorrow?’, because it’s going out by plane at 11AM to Japan, or to China, or wherever it may be.” He mentions these big clients require the surety of a phone call to do business – even email is too slow to pursue as a realistic option.
Another area Reg is keen (but currently unable) to get involved in is drone technology. He cites studies from the University of New England and the University of Sydney in the effectiveness of drones for weed management, as well as live mapping that could reduce the hours spent on property management by up to ten times. Oh, and for fun too: “Everyone needs a hobby. I’ll get permission for the business reasons, but I can have a bit of fun too…”.
Reg also raises a vital point that had so far gone unmentioned: –The social side of communication is just as much of a public issue as the business end. Though depression is a real problem in regional Australia, he thinks we can overcome those barriers with the right communication. "Hundreds of thousands" are spent each year on advertising for support services like Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and the Black Dog Institute, however, these services only work when you have access in the first place.
“Everybody wants to feel that they’re not isolated and that someone is out there on the phone…but if you can’t, well, you’re defeating the purpose and they feel more isolated. That social side of the need for good coverage is just as critical as the business side; probably more critical with people raising families, kids’ education, kids keeping in contact, families keeping in contact, and getting market information - they’re all important things, and they’re going to do that over the phone.”
Reg is adamant that we, as a country, have an obligation to provide reliable mobile services to everyone, no matter where they live. “If that means on the other side of Unandatta, the whole 15 properties get a satellite phone over there for nothing, and only get charged for what they use, I’m quite willing for some of my taxes to be spent on that because I want people to be able to live there, to raise a family, to take care of people in those parts of Australia. I’m quite willing to subsidise that.”
In realising how important reliable mobile coverage and choice of service provider are for Australians, particularly those living in regional and remote areas, the ACCC is conducting an inquiry to explore the extent to which domestic roaming would promote competition among mobile providers and its effect on investment in mobile infrastructure.
Through domestic roaming the cost of building and upgrading mobile networks can be shared between two or more mobile providers. Consumers would receive the benefits of choice, as multiple mobile providers would compete on the basis of one mobile network in many rural and remote areas.
“I think it’s tradition in rural areas that you had Telstra – it’s the only thing you knew about.”
One of the important things in rural Australia is to know what services are available, what can be provided, and at what cost. And the service – what do you do if something goes wrong and how quickly they can respond to it whether it’s from a distance or up close.”
Reg has a lot riding on better mobile services. From training younger generations, to his own business endeavours, to family (his two sons both work internationally and struggle for service when visiting home), to his work in the local community.
For this, Reg Kidd is on board with domestic roaming.
“If a lot of the infrastructure that goes into towers has been done by government, or it is going to be supported by government in some way, I think it’s critical that those towers can be shared by the providers and they can work out some contractual arrangement for the maintenance of those towers. We’ve got to get away from the ‘this is mine, that is yours’ mentality. We’ve got to get around to genuine cooperation and consultation in the provision of good communications to people.”
“I’m all for it.”
If you support Domestic Roaming, contact your local MP and let them know.