Mobile Coverage Black Spots: Filling the black holes

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Imagine this: you’re driving to a far-flung town late one night. Suddenly, your car splutters and you manage to steer it to the side of the road before it completely dies. ‘No worries,’ you think. ‘I’ll just call for help.’ You pull out your mobile phone but something is wrong … it takes a while to realise that you have no bars on your phone: you’re in a mobile black spot!

If you think that sort of situation would be quite rare, unfortunately, in New Zealand, it is not. We have three different mobile phone networks, owned by Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees. But while these three companies cover 95 per cent of the places Kiwis live and work, the reality is this makes up only around 50 per cent of New Zealand’s land mass.

The five per cent of Kiwis not covered by mobile phone companies are spread across tricky terrain and difficult geography covering half of the countryside. This means if you do break down in an area with no mobile phone coverage, it is pretty unlikely there will be a passing car to help.

What is being done to improve mobile coverage?

With mobile technology becoming more advanced, and more important in today’s world of e-commerce, the lack of mobile phone coverage adds to the digital divide for rural communities.

Fortunately, the Government has decided it will step in to help with a Mobile Black Spot Fund. This will enable new mobile coverage for about 1000km of state highways and 108 tourist destinations. When completed in 2022, a further 20 to 30 per cent of New Zealand will have mobile coverage.

The Government will spend a total of $290 million on the Mobile Black Spot Fund and the second phase of the Rural Broadband Initiative. Both of these are branches of the Ultra-Fast Broadband roll-out.

One aim of the fund is open access, so when new towers are put up, all mobile phone companies will have access to them – meaning you will have coverage, no matter who your phone is with. Another benefit is the cellphone towers can offer wireless broadband – using technology known as “fixed wireless” – for communities struggling to get copper connectivity.

Focus on safety first

Safety is the first focus of the Mobile Black Spot Fund, explains Nick Manning from Crown Infrastructure Partners, the Crown company set-up to manage government investment in mobile and ultra-fast broadband.

State highways were prioritised according to the number of incidents – such as crashes – and the length of black spot along them. While the lack of mobile coverage can be an inconvenience if you have broken down, it is down-right dangerous after a crash.

Manning gives the example of State Highway 6 near Haast, on the South Island’s West Coast.

“There were several crashes on State Highway 6 and the crashes were mainly tourists. There is a more than 200km stretch without coverage from Lake Hawea in Wanaka up to Fox Glacier.

“There were a lot of horror stories about people, particularly tourists, having crashes and a passer-by would have to drive for one, one-and-a-half hours, just to get to a phone to call emergency services.”

The delay meant the “golden hour” was lost – the time after a traumatic injury where prompt medical treatment is most likely to prevent death. Work to give coverage in Haast was completed in March 2018.

Economic development also essential

Safety is not the only focus of the Mobile Black Spot Fund. Tourism spots are also covered to help enhance economic development.

Manning says with everything being online – including social media and communications – areas attracting high numbers of tourists have also been given priority. International tourist hot-spots are a particular focus, he says.

“The tourists and visitors themselves don’t view it positively if they can’t use their phones anywhere.”

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