• Tony Bosworth

Half the mobile coverage - Optus go for cheaper option in Macdonald Valley after five-year wait

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Back in December 2016, then Hawkesbury Liberal MP – now state Treasurer - Dominic Perrottet, proudly announced, "Residents in St Albans and the Macdonald Valley will soon be safer and better connected thanks to a new St Albans mobile tower announced today by the NSW and Federal Governments as part of the $40 million Mobile Black Spots Program.

“The crucial St Albans tower was selected thanks to the additional $15 million contribution by the NSW Government in partnership with funding from the Commonwealth Government and mobile carriers,” he said.

But five years later there is still no Optus mobile tower.

And even when there eventually is, it will have less than half the range of the agreed – and funded - option all those years back.

Telecommunications issues in the Macdonald Valley – St Albans is its main settlement - are not new, and during the March floods the issue once again came into sharp focus as the area was totally cut off with no communications at all for over three days.

Since the original funding was announced in 2016, the valley has suffered several emergency situations, including two major floods and the Black Summer bushfires.

Optus has now committed to a microcell tower – to potentially be placed at Wollombi Road in St Albans - rather than the much larger range macrocell originally agreed on, but there is still no word on when it will be built or switched on.

“For a community that in 2016 would ‘soon be safer and better connected’, 50% less mobile coverage than originally committed to is not acceptable,”

says St Albans resident Stephen Brown who is also an ex-President of the Macdonald Valley Association (MVA).

Optus had identified and were looking at a macrocell location that happened to be on Mr Brown’s land, but the comms company eventually came to the conclusion the site was not feasible on both technical and cost grounds.

Mr Brown said an email he received from Optus’s Andrew Sheridan, Vice President of Regulatory & Public Affairs, made it clear the Federal Government had apparently accepted what Mr Brown calls “this second rate solution”.

“The Federal Government is aware of and has approved the delivery of a micro satellite coverage solution to the St Albans community and is satisfied the solution fulfils the requirements of the program,” said Mr Sheridan in the email to Mr Brown.

Mr Brown says what Optus seems to be ignoring is that by looking at the small cell arrangement they are not meeting the terms of the Black Spot Program which in part says, "As a minimum, all Funded Base Stations must provide at least ten square kilometres of new or upgraded handheld coverage for Macrocell base stations and at least five square kilometres for Small Cell base stations”.

Meanwhile, Telstra is planning what they call a Telstra Small Cell in St Albans – both Optus and Telstra coverage can be used by anyone making emergency calls – and told the Post, “we’re going through the site selection process now and we’ll keep the community updated as we progress.

“Telstra uses Small Cells in areas where the terrain and layout are better suited to maximise coverage in these communities.

“Telstra Small Cells are used extensively in the surrounding area including Central Macdonald, Wheeny Creek, Gunderman and Lower Portland,” said a company spokesperson.

There is no timeframe around the new Telstra cell either – both Optus and Telstra will need to put in planning applications to Hawkesbury Council once sites have been confirmed - but in Telstra’s case they say they will, “work as quickly as we can to get it on air”.

Current MVA President, Jane Blacker, is angry about the way the Macdonald Valley is being treated and says they are entitled to proper mobile coverage.

“Surely, as small a place as St Albans is, we are entitled to coverage like everybody else. Only two hours from Sydney and as you can see from the last flood issues the telecommunications’ reliability is of paramount importance in emergencies.

“We had a case of a local nurse spending nine hours trying to get a critically ill patient airlifted to hospital, literally going from property to property as reception dropped out. Any longer may have resulted in the death of the patient."

“The Macdonald Valley Association has been lobbying for many years to secure better telecommunications for our community with the backing and support of Macquarie MP Susan Templeman.

“It seems ludicrous that mobile reception is available in other parts of the country depending on where the votes are, and yet St Albans is denied that basic right. No wonder we are known as the Forgotten Valley. Just because we have a small population, why should we tolerate this discrimination?

“During the last flood, the Macdonald Valley was without power, landlines, the ferries had stopped running, and there was no mobile phone reception except in a few places, for example the Central Macdonald School which is only useful when the flood waters do not cut our residents off from each other,” said Ms Blacker.

“Even the Telstra back up battery in St Albans had to be run by a generator, with fuel brought in by helicopter.

“In 2016 Optus made a commitment to provide us with a large cell installation for mobile coverage which has not come to fruition and now they are only going to provide a small cell installation which will be of benefit to only a few with its coverage of around 400m.

“They have clearly not honoured their commitment," she said.

MP Susan Templeman said she would continue to stand with Macdonald Valley residents and do all she could to sort the communications issues out.

“Floods and bushfires have shown us how desperate the need for robust and reliable telecommunications are, particularly mobile coverage and particularly in areas like the Macdonald Valley,” Ms Templeman told the Post today.

“It’s not too dramatic to say that lives depend on it.

“Macdonald Valley residents are the victim of a poorly designed Mobile Blackspot Program that has consistently allowed the Liberals to claim they’ve solved a problem when obviously they haven’t.”

“As always, they love making announcements but simply can’t deliver what they’ve promised,” she said.

“This community has been subjected to eight years of lip service. We need better mobile coverage and stronger network infrastructure that can withstand the challenges of a changing climate, with increased natural disasters.

“While the years of neglect cannot be turned around overnight, I will continue to stand with the residents of areas like the Macdonald Valley to fight for improved services.”

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