Residents and businesses in a small South Australian town are fuming over an “unacceptable” four-day Telstra outage they say was made worse by a lack of communication from the company.

Key points:

  • Telstra has apologised to the Millicent community after a lengthy mobile coverage outage
  • The outage occurred after a piece of equipment at the base mobile station broke
  • Local businesses say they were left scrambling to deal with the situation

The majority of Millicent’s mobile coverage comes from a base station in the middle of town.

On Wednesday evening it failed when a piece of specialised equipment broke, creating, according to Millicent Community Business Association chair Lee Morgan “a lot of repercussions for the community”.

“It affected things like EFTPOS … and COVID check-ins to buildings,” he said.

“[Mobile coverage] is an essential service these days.

“It’s for emergency services, it’s for those urgent family matters.

Waiting on the line

Mr Morgan said Telstra was less than proactive in keeping residents up to date with what was happening.

“It would reduce that confusion in the community, thinking it’s their own devices, when actually it’s a system problem,” Mr Morgan said.

“[Telstra should have] put something up on the website.

“I know that you’re not going to be able to see it off your phone, but have some other systems, or at least able to ring a relative to say, ‘Is there an outage that’s been reported?’

“We will be supporting our members in highlighting to Telstra that when you have an outage such as this, there are implications to business.”

Back to basics

Shearer’s Cook Cafe owner Melissa Armfield said her business went without mobile reception for about 36 hours.

“Probably a third of our business would be EFTPOS,” she said.

“A lot people came in and just popped next door to the supermarket and withdrew some cash so that they could still get their coffees.”

She said the biggest issue was with scanning QR codes for the COVID-19 check-in.

“We used a manual sign in, with pen and paper,” Ms Armfield said.

“People have really started to embrace it.

“It’s taken a little while for them to get into the swing of things and then they’ve just started to embrace it, and now it’s back to where we were before.

Melissa Armfield’s cafe was without mobile reception for about 36 hours.(ABC South East SA: Isadora Bogle)

‘Insular little bubble’

ABC South East SA caller Millicent resident Sandy said it had been a tricky time.

“There was quite a few angry customers, because we’re all encouraged to use cards these days, not cash, so that was very disconcerting,” she said.

“There was a lot of anxious people in town.”

Sandy said the struggle was even harder for elderly residents.

“A lot don’t drive, a lot are dependent on their phones to ring up the local supermarkets to get their groceries delivered,” she said.

“We were just like in this insular little bubble and the rest of the world was happening — we just didn’t know where to begin, to reach out.

Telstra says sorry

Telstra’s regional general manager for SA, Mark Bolton, said the company got the communication with customers “wrong”.

“It’s always difficult to work out the best way to communicate an issue like this, because I think we all had expectations that we’d fix it fairly quickly,” he said.

“We would have loved to have communicated that if, we had a good timeframe on when it was going to be restored.

“So we can only apologise.

“We probably got that wrong in the end, quite frankly — we do apologise for the whole incident.”

He said the company should have acted differently.

“We did send a communique out to the business community on Saturday morning, but it was probably a day too late,” he said.

“If we knew what we knew on Thursday, we probably would have made a call to the ABC and local media to actually let people know.”

Mr Bolton said emergency calls were still able to be connected.

“People who wanted to ring triple-zero — often you’ll see ‘SOS only’ on your mobile phone.

“That is you connecting to another provider, so that feature would have still been active.

“So you could connect to another provider to actually make an emergency call, so that should not have been affected.”

Additional reporting by Grace Whiteside and Isadora Bogle.