Rural bushfire risk heightened by phone drop-outs

Rural bushfire risk heightened by phone drop-outs

17 February 2013

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Australia — A LACK of mobile phone coverage in disaster-prone regions from the Great Ocean Road to the Great Barrier Reef is putting lives at risk, residents and analysts warn.

But efforts by Fairfax Media to correlate mobile coverage and bushfire risk in remote areas revealed a lack of objective public data.

The Victorian government refused to provide the computer file used to generate one piece of public data that does exist: a map of bushfire-prone areas that is available for viewing – but not for analysis – online.

Telecommunications companies publish maps online that estimate the coverage they provide – but residents in a range of communities prone to fire or flood insist the maps do not match reality.

Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, who is also a Rural Fire Service volunteer in his Lower Hunter Valley community, said there were cases where the maps were clearly inaccurate. ”We know the signals they indicate are not correct,” he said.

Federal opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt, whose electorate includes the bushfire-prone Mornington Peninsula, has criticised mobile phone carriers for providing maps that could lead residents to believe coverage extends into at-risk areas. Maps provided by Telstra and Optus depict comprehensive coverage in the region.

”Any map that claims full coverage on the Mornington Peninsula is clearly false and misleading,” he said.

But the major telecommunications companies stand by their maps.

”Telstra uses predictive modelling tools refined over many years to generate our coverage maps,” a spokesman said. ”This is backed up by extensive drive surveys that confirm the accuracy of our mapping.”

An Optus spokeswoman said networks were being tweaked constantly to help regional areas and that the maps were ”more conservative than actual coverage”.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority, which regulates telecommunications for the federal government, does not generate its own coverage maps. Areas of fire risk are mapped by local councils. In Victoria, those areas have been consolidated into a single map, which can be viewed at The computer file that generates this map could allow comparison with coverage claimed by mobile phone providers. But when Fairfax Media requested the map file the government refused, claiming the map might be falsified if released.

Later this month, residents of Apollo Bay, near the Great Otway National Forest on the Great Ocean Road, will hold a meeting on the issue of mobile coverage. A representative of the major telecommunications provider in the area is expected to attend.

Jane Gross, a director of the Apollo Bay Community Bank, which is organising the meeting, said the boom in tourist numbers over summer meant coverage in the area became inadequate when it was most needed. ”We go from 1300 [people] to about 15,000,” she said. ”It just can’t cope.”

Simon Pockley, former chairman of the Southern Otway Land Care network, said the Otway forest was ”a disaster waiting to happen” – and made worse by the poor mobile coverage.

The problem is not restricted to Victoria. Mr Pockley lost a home in the NSW Warrambungle Mountains this year, and said poor communication had made the situation worse. ”It was utterly impossible to get any information about what was happening.”

The problem extends into remote areas subject to flood. Ron Dyne, the mayor of Gympie on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, has been campaigning for better coverage in his area since this year’s floods.

Mr Dyne is a veteran of the Vietnam War and regularly travels back to that country. ”I can be in the middle of the Mekong River and have perfect phone reception, and yet when I’m five kilometres outside of Gympie I have no reception,” he said.


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