Software glitch causes continuous Telstra call drop outs in regional areas

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Hundreds of people are using social media to vent their frustration at a Telstra software glitch disconnecting calls, and callers receiving messages saying a number is not connected when it is.

Key points:

  • Telstra customers in WA and Victoria are experiencing numerous call dropouts and often, calls not connecting at all
  • The telecommunications company is blaming a software glitch, when a call moves from 4G to 3G
  • MPs are calling for an investigation into regional telecommunications after receiving numerous complaints

A Telstra spokesman said it was happening intermittently in isolated areas of Western Australia — and sporadically in Victoria — when a call moved from 4G to 3G.

But those expressing their annoyance suggest it is a much larger problem.

Wyalkatchem shire president Quentin Davies said residents were dealing with mobile phone calls disconnecting several times a day.

As the call cuts out, a pre-recorded message states: “The number you have dialled is not connected.”

“Obviously every now and then you get a dropout with mobiles, but this happens very regularly now … and it’s certainly become more obvious in the last couple of months,” Mr Davies said.

Nationals WA leader and Member for Central Wheatbelt Mia Davies, whose electorate covers 101,000 square kilometres, said she constantly had phone calls disconnecting, despite having a mobile signal booster in her car.

“We all understand you’re not going to have 100 per cent coverage across regional Western Australia, it’s not practical or possible,” she said.

“But it’s this dropping out that seems to be a more and more common complaint.”

Life-threatening issue

Every time Emma-Lee Elliott has to make a phone call, she needs to get into her car and drive up a hill.

Ms Elliott has lived in the Wheatbelt town of Meckering, 130km east of Perth, for 15 years and has always struggled to get a decent signal on her mobile phone.

But in the past six months, she said the mobile reception had gone downhill; at best she’ll have one bar of service, but some days she can only make emergency calls.

“Myself and my family don’t have landlines so we rely on our mobiles a lot,” she said.

When contacted by the ABC for an interview, Ms Elliott said her reception was so unreliable it would have to be conducted by email.

A few weeks ago her reception issues went from frustrating to life-threatening, when her one-year-old daughter, Sophia, developed an extremely high temperature.

With the closest hospital a 20-minute drive away and no signal on her phone, Ms Elliott’s only option was to walk to her mother’s house.

“I needed fuel and couldn’t transfer money across, and I couldn’t call anyone to help me,” she said.

“I’ve contacted Telstra numerous times and it’s always the same excuse: ‘You need to buy a booster.'”

Ms Elliott said the boosters, costing upwards of $600 each, were too expensive and unreliable.

“My mum has one in her house and it doesn’t do much; it’s constantly dropping out because it can’t get a strong connection,” she said.

Illegal repeaters to blame

Telstra said devices used to boost mobile signals were also to blame for some ongoing transmission issues.

Mobile repeater devices, which replicate and improve mobile signals, can be used legally if purchased from a telco.

But when used illegally, Telstra area general manager Boyd Brown said they could cause significant issues and could even knock out coverage to an entire area.

A recent investigation by Telstra identified external interference around a number of mobile base stations in the Wheatbelt.

“While some people in an area might not notice a change, often those towards the edge of a coverage area will notice they don’t have any coverage, which will impact on their ability to make triple-0 emergency calls,” Mr Brown said.

A spokesperson for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said it had not received any complaints of interference from illegal repeaters in the Wheatbelt in the past 12 months.

ACMA has been working with mobile network operators to address the unauthorised use of repeaters since 2012.

In 2018-19 it received 39 complaints where mobile phone repeaters were causing problems, compared to 123 in 2013-14.

Calls for investigation

Member for Moore Shane Love said there needed to be a thorough investigation into what was causing the problems.

“If there are illegal repeaters causing this, then there needs to be some enforcement and some action to correct that situation,” he said.

“My constituents swear that the towers are simply being turned down in power, something Telstra consistently denies happens, but it seems strange to me that all of these towers should be affected all of a sudden.

“Community safety is at risk here … and people are being left without communications.”

Telstra has asked people not to rely on the mobile phone network during an emergency, but when the power was out and the mobile network was down, Ms Davies said people were left with few options.

“We’ve gone from communities that have had no mobile phone coverage … and now they’ve got that service, you become used to it,” she said.

“It’s something I think you should expect to have. We shouldn’t be living in the Dark Ages when it comes to living in regional Western Australia.

“We need to look at how we can provide the ability to attach a generator or to increase the battery storage on these mobile phone towers.”

Sven Andersen, Superintendent of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Upper Great Southern region, said the best way to stay up to date during an emergency was to listen to the radio.

“We advocate for people to have a battery-operated radio with spare batteries in their emergency kit,” he said.

“Another great way of having radio access that people often forget is your car or vehicle; AM and FM radio with a pretty good power source is sitting right there.”