Regional phone coverage needs fixing, farmer Alex Ballhausen, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud say

Brandon Long
By Brandon Long
Updated April 4 2022 - 9:23pm, first published 8:00am
An X-ray of Alex Ballhausen's spine.

Lying on the ground with eight fractured vertebrae, a fractured skull, shoulder and ribs, a punctured lung, and a smashed nose, cheekbone and eye socket, farmer Alex Ballhausen reached for his mobile phone to call for help.

There was no signal.

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It was at that point he thought if he didn't crawl 20 metres to his ute and drive to get help, he might die.

It was 9am on March 14 and Mr Ballhausen was working from a height on one of his properties, 60km south of Narromine, when he slipped and fell 5m to the ground.

His wife didn't know where he was, and because they farm 1600ha by themselves, no one else did either.

Narromine farmer Alex Ballhausen is calling for better mobile coverage for regional Australia after having a serious accident and not being able to call for help.

"I actually woke up on my hands and knees. I can't remember falling on the ground and I think I had a massive gash across my forehead and there was just blood all over my sleeve," Mr Ballhausen said.

"With the pain, I thought, 'This is pretty serious'. Obviously, family came to mind first. I didn't know what to do.

"I had two options. I could've laid there for god knows how long - it would have been hours - or I had some earthmoving contractors employed that day and they were two kilometres further into the farm."

Mr Ballhausen made it to his ute, opened the door and got inside.

He tried calling a neighbour on the UHF but was in too bad a state to work it, so he started the drive towards the contractors.

"Those contractors wouldn't have driven back out till six o'clock that night and this was at nine o'clock in the morning, so I don't know whether I would have made it to be honest," he said.

"I don't know whether shock would've taken over. I'm not sure. I was pretty bloody scared, I can tell you."

They started driving towards Narromine and called an ambulance, which met them on the way.

"You see on those medical shows, they roll patients to the side and they feel down their spine, and all I heard them say was, 'Deformity'," he said.

"I knew there was something wrong back there, but when they said that, I just started crying because I thought, 'This is it'."

He was taken to Dubbo, then Sydney where five vertebrae were fused and he underwent facial reconstruction surgery.

After two weeks, he returned to Dubbo for rehabilitation.

Can't call for help

Speaking to Queensland Country Life from hospital, Mr Ballhausen said the ongoing issue of unreliable mobile phone coverage in regional areas had to be fixed.

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"We should be able to go about our day knowing that if something goes wrong we have the confidence that we can call for help," he said.

"I think it's getting worse. My home block is probably only six kilometres to Narromine. I can see the light on the Telstra tower at night; that's how close we are. But yet, there's dead spots on my farm."

Littleproud attacks telco

A day after Telstra CEO Andrew Penn announced his retirement for September - to be replaced by current CFO Vicki Brady - federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud took aim at the company.

He called on Ms Brady to front up and do more for regional customers whose lives and livelihoods were being "put at risk from Telstra's service failings".

"Mr Penn allowed telecommunications across regional Australia to reach crisis point," Mr Littleproud said.

"He allowed vital landline and mobile infrastructure to degrade and permitting band-aid fixes to occur, despite the terrible impact this is having on regional Australians.

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"I have case after case of Telstra service failings being reported to me by my Maranoa constituents and I implore Telstra's new, incoming CEO to act otherwise there could be a loss of life."

Mr Littleproud said there were also some major mobile network over-capacity issues happening in the regions, causing mobile services to deteriorate rapidly.

"The situation is frankly at crisis point and I am calling on Telstra to front up and commit to immediate major landline and mobile infrastructure upgrades in Maranoa."

Telstra fires back

Mr Penn hit back at Mr Littleproud, saying it was "difficult to have a sensible discussion" with him.

"He is clearly confused about many things - the difference between fixed and mobile, nbn and Telstra, how telecommunications works, who is responsible for what, and many of his own government's policies," Mr Penn said.

"I am all for Mr Littleproud representing the concerns of his constituents - I applaud him for it. And I recognise we don't always get things right - I'm happy to cop that. But it's wrong and disrespectful to our teams across Australia to categorise our service the way he has. It's not true and offensive, especially at a time when so many of our people are in the field working in challenging conditions due to the floods to keep our customers connected."

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Mr Penn said the company provided extensive services across regional and rural Australia, invested billions of dollars, and connected more communities than any other telco.

He said government needed policies and regulations that recognised telecommunications was a long-term capital-intensive industry and needed to provide the certainty required to invest.

Budget promises

Last Friday, Mr Littleproud talked up the federal government's $1.3 billion budget plans for regional telecommunications, which he says will deliver major mobile coverage and internet service improvements for local residents and businesses.

The new investment promises the roll-out of "multitudes" of new mobile towers across the electorate, as well as "major" upgrades to nbn networks.

The investment would include a new $811.8 million Connecting Regional Australia Program to expand mobile coverage.

Bruised but alive

As for Mr Ballhausen, the scars will heal, but he'll have to make some changes to his lifestyle.

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"The [plastic surgeon] at Royal North Shore Hospital said, 'Mate, it was like eggshells in there'," he said.

"He expected a two hour operation and it ended up being four and a half because it was such a mess.

"The orthopaedic surgeons can't give me a full answer [on the possibility of a full recovery], no matter how many times I've asked them. I'd like to think 90 per cent. I'm pretty nimble for 51. I've always been very proud of that, but I think that nimbleness is possibly gone now.

"The scars will heal and I think my nose is still bent, but whether we bother straightening it right out, I'll see. It might just be something to remind me each day when I look in the mirror in the morning: 'Slow down mate'.

His wife Lucinda agrees.

"She's so happy that I'm still here of course, but she just said, 'Don't do it again'," he said.

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"[We have] 4000 acres - and nearly 800 acres of irrigation - and I do it all by myself, which is probably silly, when you think about it.

"My wife and I have talked about it and it's time to slow down and try and find someone [to assist]."

While in recovery, his wife and her parents have been looking after the farm.

"Honestly, she's a bloody superwoman. From the day of the accident she took my phone and answered the calls and kept the farm running," he said.

"We had a fair bit going on at the time, so I've been blessed to have her by my side.

"Also, the strength of a small community is quite amazing in times like this. I've had so many mates step up and people offer help."

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He's also looking forward to seeing his two children, who attend school in Sydney and will be home for the holidays this weekend.

"I've only seen them once since I've been in hospital, which has been hard. I'm busting to catch up with them."

Ever the farmer, he's already thinking about what needs to be done at home.

"We've finished irrigating cotton. We start defoliation this week, but with the spray contractor, that's covered," he said.

As for sowing winter crop, that's going to have to be a full contract job this year because he won't be able to get in a tractor for at least six to eight weeks.

Mr Ballhausen is hoping to check out of hospital on Tuesday.

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Brandon Long

Brandon Long

Queensland Country Life journalist

Brandon Long is a Queensland Country Life journalist based in Toowoomba.

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