A prolonged phone and internet outage at one of South Australia’s most remote Aboriginal communities was likely caused by rodents and has prompted a call for fresh approaches to telecommunications in the bush.

Key points:

  • 3G and 4G services went down on January 15 for five days affecting phone, internet, EFTPOS, and ATM services
  • NBN Co is looking to increase the amount of people at Pukatja connected to its Sky Muster satellite service
  • Internet advocacy group BIRRR calls for tailored approaches to the rollout of remote services

Telstra services went down at Pukatja on January 15 and meant people could not make phone calls nor use EFTPOS and ATM machines.

The outage meant people were unable to buy goods and fuel with bank cards and were unable to withdraw cash.

Services were restored on January 20.

Pukatja is an Aboriginal community on the APY Lands in far north South Australia, 1,400 kilometres north of Adelaide.

Sarah Ken and her husband Joel had to travel 40 minutes to nearby Fregon to speak with the ABC during the outage and said it was making life even harder.

“Living here and being remote is already very challenging. The services are already limited,” she said.

“You expect people to respond very quickly in the city, but out here you can’t have those same expectations.”

Joel and Sarah Ken with their daughter, Kaylah, were without mobile connectivity for five days.(Supplied: Sarah Ken)

Mr Ken, who is from Pukatja, said local people, Anangu, usually only buy food to meet daily needs.

“The way that it affects us more than people in the city is that people don’t really have the ability to store food,” he said.

“Anangu people buy food on the day and eat it on the day, and to be unable to do that is the main way it affects Anangu people.”

Rodents eating lines

Telstra apologised for the inconvenience caused by the outage, which affected both 3G and 4G services, but not NBN satellite services.

Telstra has apologised for the inconvenience caused by the prolonged outage.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

A company spokesperson said the outage was likely due to rodents eating away at transmission lines.

Chris Cusack, general manager of NBN Local, said more than 20 per cent of premises at Pukatja are connected to the NBN.

Mr Cusack said NBN recently met with representatives from the APY Lands about installing a Sky Muster Plus connection.

“Participation in the project is being considered for the Pukatja community,” he said.

“NBN also plans to visit the area in the coming months to host engagement and educational sessions.”

Needs-based approach

The Pukatja outage prompted fresh calls from a rural telecommunications advocacy group for a tailored approach to services in the bush.

Kristy Sparrow from Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) said services need to be specifically tailored for each community.

“Each community in all of the states and territories around Australia are so very different,” she said.

Sky Muster satellites aim to deliver broadband internet services to hundreds of thousands of remote Australians.(Supplied: NBN)

“It could be a high tourist area. If you’re looking at somewhere like Mallacoota in Victoria, it’s only a population 1,000, but in tourist season it grows to 9,000.

The connectivity options available to that particular community when they’ve got 1,000 people aren’t going to suit where there’s 9,000.”

Ms Sparrow said Aboriginal communities also need special consideration.

“Staff working at local schools and health centres in those communities might be able to access another type of connection that suits their needs.”

Ms Sparrow said people in remote areas could not rely on just one form of phone or internet connection.

“Some of those outages are outside the carriers’ control, so it’s always a wise move for those communities to have a backup connection,” she said.