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CDMA shutdown: Rural communities left in black spots

The official word from Telstra and the Federal government is that the Next G Network provides equivalent or superior coverage to CDMA. Try telling that to the people of Mangoplah, NSW.
Written by Brett Winterford, Contributor

The official word from Telstra and the Federal government is that the Next G Network provides equivalent or superior coverage to CDMA. Try telling that to the people of Mangoplah, NSW.

At midnight tonight, Telstra will switch off its CDMA network — the network the vast bulk of Australians in regional and rural areas rely on for their mobile communications.

Its replacement, Next G, is a high bandwidth mobile data network, which provides better download speeds and — according to a recent report by regulator ACMA — offers equivalent if not superior coverage to CDMA.

Try telling that to the people of Mangoplah, NSW, a rural community 30 kilometres from the sizeable regional centre of Wagga.

Mangoplah, with little over a hundred residents, is one of many black spots within the Next G network, where in side-by-side comparisons it is glaringly obvious that CDMA works, and Next G very rarely does.

"We simply can't get service here [with Next G]," says Nathan Stoll, manager of the Mangoplah Farm Centre. "The service drops out if you walk. Most of the locals are having to walk up hills, searching for coverage."

Mangoplah sits in an area that, according to Telstra's coverage maps for Next G, can only gain 'patchy' coverage. Telstra recommends that the area's residents use external antennae, mounted in their homes and on their vehicles, to improve their chances of coverage.

Local resident Michael Dwyer can prove that his CDMA handset worked "every time" in the area, without the use of antennae. He, like many of his neighbours, has gone through several Next G handsets — including the "blue tick" handsets Telstra recommends for regional users — and still can't get a decent connection.

The closure of the CDMA network, Dwyer says, will do great harm to rural and regional Australians.

Stoll and Dwyer both claim to have lost income since switching to Next G. Farmers, says Stoll, are finding it difficult to contact the Mangoplah Farm Centre in a timely fashion when their grain is ready. Dwyer, an on-call technician for regional television and radio stations, claims missed calls are costing him "a fortune".

"If they can't get hold of me quickly, I'm out of work," he says.

Dwyer also believes that Telstra's abandoning of CDMA may cost lives. In Mangoplah, he says, there is little to no phone coverage on a stretch of road that has some 1,200 vehicles a day pass through it.

"Some of us here in the community work for the local rural fire service," he said. "In the past, we've been sent an SMS if there is a major motor vehicle accident for us to attend to. We've had two serious accidents on the trot now where none of us attended, because nobody had the coverage on Next G to get the message in time."

In January, over 110 angry local Mangoplah residents attended a meeting to canvas the issue with local Telstra representative Andrew Cotterill.

Cotterill, says Stoll, admitted to the local community that Next G reception in the area is less than ideal. Cotterill has been working with the community to help resolve the issues.

But officially, Telstra is taking a far tougher stance.

"Telstra's commitment from day one has been that the Next G network would provide the same or better coverage than CDMA did. We met this milestone long ago," a Telstra spokesperson said. "The government's own audit confirms this."

The spokesperson added that Telstra technicians have travelled to Mangoplah on several occasions to test mobile coverage.

"These tests have shown, unequivocally, that there is coverage equivalence in the Mangoplah area," he says. "While it's no secret that mobile coverage in Mangoplah is limited, all our tests have shown Next G performs the same, if not better, than the old CDMA network ever did — and certainly provides coverage where our foreign competitors provide no service whatsoever."

Handset problems
To date, Telstra's solution to the problem in Mangoplah — like many other rural communities — is to keep recommending new handsets.

Drive Northwest from Mangoplah a few hours and you meet another rural community being told much the same story.

"We had very, very good coverage with CDMA," says farmer Reg Irskine in Benerembah district, some 25 kilometres from the agricultural city of Griffith. "I've had Next G for 14 months now and gone through three handsets. The first one didn't work; the second had Telstra's blue tick, but was still no good. The third one doesn't suffer from drop-outs as much, but the signal is distorted beyond recognition when you're making a phone call. I'm glad they got the drop-outs under control, but a fat lot of good it does if you can't understand who you're talking to."

"I've spoken to at least 50 farmers in the area that are having the same trouble," he says.

Nina Murphy, marketing manager for Woonallee Cattle Auction, a rural business serving farmers 100km from Mt Gambier in South Australia and one of Telstra's case studies for Next G's capabilities, is still a fan of the soon-to-be-defunct network.

Woonallee, Telstra says, is an example of a community that has used Next G's impressive download speeds to offer mobile video-feed access to buyers that can't make it to the annual auction.

But Murphy, when pressed, turns out to be a far bigger fan of CDMA.

"CDMA is what we used before, and we're sad to see it go," she says. "When Next G first came out, Telstra highly recommended it. And we kind of took their word for it."

Staff have had to trade in their original Next G handsets, which didn't work, for a new set where "the coverage is a lot better, but not as good as what CDMA was".

"We still have dead spots," Murphy says. "With CDMA you could walk around, with Next G, if you can get a spot with coverage, you have to stop."

"Our advice to all customers living in fringe coverage areas, is to select a Next G handset with a blue tick," confirms Telstra's spokesperson. "If accessories such as antennas were required with the CDMA phone, then they should also be purchased for the new Next G device."

"How will that help me if I'm out on the tractor, or out in a wheat field and one of us is seriously hurt?" asks Benerembah farmer Irskine.

Indeed, the ACMA report which formed the basis upon which Telstra was given permission to close the CDMA network was measured with a "drive survey" — using Next G devices coupled with mounted antennae on top of a vehicle. From this data, ACMA could roughly determine coverage areas — but it could only guess at the experience of using a handheld device without a car kit, the means by which most mobile users would wish to connect to.

Running out of options
Kay Hull, the local MP for the Riverina district (of which both Mangoplah and Benerembah are a part), says the concerns of her constituents are "still very valid and very relevant" despite the ACMA report.

She herself has gone through four handsets. "There is no doubt that Next G is out there in my electorate in the majority of places where CDMA is," she says. "But there are certain places out there that aren't going to get Next G and won't have access to any signal when CDMA is shut off."

"Telstra is blaming handsets, but these are the handsets Telstra is advising people to use," she says.

Hull fears now that Telstra has regulatory approval to shut off CDMA, there is no incentive to improve mobile communications in regional Australia.

Brett Heffernan, spokesman for the National Farmers Federation, disagrees.

"Late last year, we had the 28 January deadline looming, and Telstra hadn't put in the marketplace the required handsets and antennae. After Christmas, the equipment became available. And so in January we did another round of surveys," he said.

"Overwhelmingly, there were still major problems. The handsets weren't appropriate, calls were going straight to messagebank. Our recommendation was for CDMA not to be shut off until those significant issues were sorted out."

After the extension, more surveys were done.

"The feedback from farmers was that there are still some out there with isolated problems, but we're not seeing a systematic breakdown as we had earlier. Telstra has given us indications that they will fix those isolated problems."

However, Hull believes there is more work to be done by Telstra. "The problem now...

is that there is no promise from Telstra to extend the coverage," she said. The problem is steeped in history. To justify the privatisation of Telstra, a decision Hull opposed, the Howard government spent exorbitant amounts of money -- running into the billions -- on programs to guarantee communications in regional areas.

The "absolute majority" of this funding, through programs such as The Australian Communications Fund and the Networking the Nation program -- went to Telstra. Around AU$200 million was used to prop up the CDMA network.

"Telstra were given an extraordinary funding capacity," Hull says. "They didn't use their money to build the CDMA network up to speed -- they used government money."

Prior to these funding arrangements, Hull says, regional communities without coverage were expected to fund towers themselves. But at today's price of AU$500,000 to AU$800,000 per base station - she doesn't see anybody stepping up to the plate to pay for them.

"Telstra is telling us they don't know where funding will come from, but we know it won't be from their shareholders. The volumes just aren't big enough to guarantee a short-term return. And I can't see the ALP government subsidising base stations. The interest earnings from the Future Fund was supposed to be used to keep rural technology up to scratch, but the ALP government intends to raid that fund for a fibre-to-the-node network -- which is another blow to the bush -- as it simply won't reach regional and rural Australia."

Dwyer says that the community of Mangoplah can't possibly be expected to finance a base station. But they are prepared to meet Telstra halfway. One farmer has offered Telstra "a patch of dirt" on a hill on his property. Nathan Stoll has offered to run power to it.

"We are proposing that Telstra can have that patch of dirt for a dollar, and they can build a base station on it," Dwyer says.

Irskine has also offered to help in whatever way he can -- informing Telstra of two local exchanges within the affected area in Benerembah that could be used for a tower.

"It would take a 15 or 20-metre tower -- the power, the rest of the infrastructure is already there," he says.

"But Telstra don't want to do that. The bottom line is number one for Telstra. They don't give a stuff about customers."

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