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Landlines - literally a lifesaver in the outback

The ‘landline’ phone rang. A mobile call from a light twin aircraft: “Tom, what’s your strip like, the weather’s not looking good and I need to land – quickly!” Katherine cattle producer Tom Stockwell explains why retaining landline services is literally a matter of life and death – especially in the outback

The monsoon and 44 millimetres of rain reached Sunday Creek on Sunday, so with the one-day cricket on in New Zealand and the Rugby 7s on in Sydney, what better time to bite the bullet and do the BAS!

Then the ‘landline’ phone rang.  A mobile call from a light twin aircraft:

“Tom, what’s your strip like, the weather’s not looking good and I need to land – quickly!”

“Short, green, wet grass and very slippery at the North West end,” I replied efficiently and added thoughtfully: “It’s pretty narrow because I’m saving the margins for hay but it’s a breeze for a pilot of your ability.”

It was a breeze and after a two-hour cup of coffee, a few phone calls to establish weather, safety and plans, my visitors were on their way and thankfully arrived home safely.

You see communication is king - and literally a life-saver - in the outback.

After the excitement of the morning I settled back in to the BAS – the rain also settled in. As a result the Viewer Access Satellite Television domestic satellite dropped out (oh well … no ABC Landline today), the Foxtel satellite dropped out (there goes the cricket and rugby), the NBN satellite dropped out (at least I hadn’t fallen for the ‘cloud accounting’ con).

Then the Country Hour man rang to ask my opinion about the Productivity Commission’s bright idea that the bush didn’t need a Universal Service Obligation for telephones!

The last time we talked it was about it was when the ABC Sydney mob decided that we didn’t need local radio on short wave anymore because we could get it on the mobile phone app - but let’s not go there today.

A few years ago there would have been no mobile call from altitude to a reliable landline telephone on the station.  Mind you, even with mobile reception, until last wet season the pilot would have been able to see the weather ahead on the Tennant Creek Radar, before the BOM decided that we didn’t deserve it any more (but let’s not go there either today.)

The Productivity Commission in their 346-page report, do state in the small print that they are not entirely sure that the NBN satellite is up to voice communication -  there might be a small number of people it would inconvenience, and they would welcome feedback on the proposal.

Well here’s my two cents worth:

  • The NBN satellite is barely an internet service let alone a voice service.
  • Telephones in the NT are generally not purely landlines but a mixture of VHF radio transmitters to an optic fibre or copper node somewhere along the line.
  • Some services are satellite but these are much bigger dishes and solar arrays than the Skymuster system, and are inferior quality & reliability services to the radio/fibre/wire lines.
  • The inability of the NBN satellite system to survive even moderate cloud cover means it is useless as a primary form of communication, much less than being solely reliant on it in times of emergency.
  • To all intents and purposes there is no mobile coverage for the pastoral sector in the NT.
  • We need, as a minimum, to maintain the USO for fixed landlines, independent of the NBN. Commonly one or the other is required to report failures and breakdowns in the other technology.
  • In times of medical emergency for example, two phones are better than one where one phone can be kept open for incoming calls from the Flying Doctor/Careflight and one used to make outgoing calls.
  • If the NBN insists on a most unfair ‘fair-use’ policy which dictates a comparatively expensive and second-class service for data, then they can hardly tout for business as a phone provider (or sell bandwidth to QANTAS so that people can feed their download addiction over the satellite while on board for a few hours).

Smart phones are indeed a wonderful tool if indeed you happen to live in that very small area of our nation that has mobile reception but from where I am sitting it seems that the smarter the phones get, the dumber the decisions that get made for everyone else.

Maybe today is the day to have a very serious talk about not only the ability for the bush to access the new technology, but about all the dumb decisions that are being made to remove robust and proven communication technologies just because they don’t go with mobile apps and smashed avo.

Tom Stockwell is the President of the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association and a Katherine cattle producer.

The Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association is a member of NFF and the Rural, Regional and Remote Communications Coalition

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