Western road trip no digital fix

Crossing the great digital divide


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The Nelia Post Office.

The Nelia Post Office.

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Budding journalist, Lynette Pope took a drive through Queensland's North West to find out for herself just how digitally connected the 'Outback' has become.

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Australia in the early 1800’s was an unforgiving place.

The landscape was vast and exacting, the weather harsh and the insurmountable distances emphasised the early settler’s isolation from the rest of the world.

Prior to the completion of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line in 1872, news reports could take weeks to travel between Australian capital cities and months to reach residents in remote communities.

It’s a far cry from today’s world of social media and online immediacy.

Whilst most of Australia is now sufficiently connected, the tyranny and isolation of inadequate digital connectivity is still affecting parts of rural regions of Australia.

Only 10 per cent of Australia’s population reside outside of urban coastal areas and for a large portion of remote residents, often a two-way radio or satellite provide the only contact with the outside world. 

Most of the state of Queensland (74 per cent to be exact) is classified as ‘the outback’.

On the road outside Nelia.

On the road outside Nelia.

Online communication is often only available to residents outside large towns through the expensive and, at times, unreliable satellite service NBN Sky Muster, a program launched by the government in 2016 to deliver broadband to regional and remote Australia. 

Within the McKinlay Shire in north western Queensland, the town of Nelia boasts a scattering of houses, a historical Post Office, a menagerie of free-range chickens and a population of 10 people.

Offering accommodation, meals and rustic charm, the Corella Creek Country Farmstay is the only business in town but despite its remote location, business owners Georgie Westlund and Eric Alloway credit online visitor portals for generating almost all of their bookings.

“We only started dabbling on the internet when we started up the business but now we would be completely lost without it,” Georgie says.

“We receive all of our bookings and enquiries through Booking.com, Airbnb and our Facebook page which has 400 likes.”

Nelia receives minimal mobile coverage due to its proximity to the larger town of Julia Creek, yet it can attribute almost all of its tourism dollars to digital connectivity and the ability for visitors to access mobile applications whilst in the area. 

“We often receive phone calls from people who have found us on Wikicamps as they are driving down the Flinders Highway,” Georgie says. 

Limited rural mobile coverage and online capacity is a concern for the thousands of tourists who visit outback Queensland every year.

The limitations of the Sky Muster satellite services do not often allow for remote businesses to offer Wi-Fi services to their customers and the lack of digital connectivity in smaller outback towns can potentially be off-putting for travellers.

The Federal Government has committed to erecting 68 base 4G mobile phone stations in outback Queensland as part of its $100 million mobile phone blackspot program.

McKinlay, a township in the south-western corner of the McKinlay Shire, is scheduled to have a phone tower installed in 2018. The town has a population of 20 people and boasts one of Australia’s most iconic pubs, Walkabout Creek Hotel, featured in the celebrated 1986 Australian movie Crocodile Dundee.

Debbie and Frank Wust purchased The Walkabout Creek Hotel in 2014 and benefit from the pub’s position on the Landsborough Highway, one of the main thoroughfares between Brisbane and Darwin.

“From an emergency contact point of view I can understand the need for mobile phone coverage here as we do get so many travellers passing through,” Debbie says.

Outside the Walkabout Hotel in McKinlay.

Outside the Walkabout Hotel in McKinlay.

As McKinlay has never had network coverage, Debbie says it will take some getting used to once the tower is installed.

I am considering banning the use of mobile phones in the bar area as I would hate to see everyone texting on their phones rather than talking to each other.

“I am considering banning the use of mobile phones in the bar area as I would hate to see everyone texting on their phones rather than talking to each other,” she says.

Another 78km along the Landsborough Highway is the town of Kynuna with a population of 10 people, a roadhouse and the historic Blue Heeler Hotel,  famous for its ties with Banjo Patterson and his penning of bush ballad Waltzing Matilda.

McKinlay Shire Mayor, Belinda Murphy, has advocated twice for the inclusion of Kynuna in the government’s mobile phone blackspot program but both applications were declined.

“The government responded by saying Kynuna is too small a community to warrant installing a phone tower,” Cr Murphy says.

Cattle production is the biggest industry in McKinlay Shire and Cr Murphy considers adequate digital connectivity to be an essential component for station owners to run their businesses and have access to social interaction and education.

“Cattle producers need to be able to operate their businesses effectively by having access to internet banking, invoicing systems, emails and online cattle trading sites,” Cr Murphy says.

“There are still station owners out here paying with cheques because they cannot log onto internet banking.”

Attracting and retaining staff to work on rural properties is also a financial concern for remote business owners.

“It is always hard to attract staff for remote work, but it is impossible when the station has no internet access at all,” Cr Murphy says. “Often the first question business owners are asked by prospective workers is whether they have Wi-Fi.”

While McKinlay Shire station owners have access to the Sky Muster satellite facilities, the service can be intermittent and easily affected by weather. There are also complaints about constrictive limits on data usage and allocation, with the majority of data supplied only becoming available during off-peak hours.

Kristy Sparrow is a rural internet services advocate who administers the Facebook page Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia.

Kristy acknowledges the difficulties regional residents and businesses face with inadequate online services.

“Along with restrictive data allowances, the unreliability of the Sky Muster satellite service has created significant impacts to the education, business, health and welfare of regional Australians,” Kristy says.

The social side of online interaction for isolated outback residents is also a consideration with a report released by the National Rural Health Alliance in March detailing the rate of suicide in rural areas of Australia being 40 per cent higher than in major cities. 

Children living on remote properties also require reliable online access for educational purposes as The School of the Air (SOA) for remote learning is incorporating new technology and bringing the SOA into the digital era.

Community leaders in the McKinlay Shire are campaigning for improved rural coverage and services.

Mayor Belinda Murphy believes working together with the government and Telstra is the way forward for remote areas.

“I will continue to work alongside Telstra to achieve results for our region,” she says. “Rurally, we are not going to move forward and we are not going to attract staff to work in our businesses unless we have the digital connectivity people are looking for.”

Kynuna

Kynuna

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