Photo: Sonia Tipton regularly has to drive into Hyden for internet access to get her bookkeeping done. (ABC News: Kathryn Diss)
If the drudgery of your job seems bad, imagine having to wake up at 3:00am to get bookkeeping done, because that is the only time when there is enough bandwidth to process online accounts.What about needing to drive for kilometres from your home just to send an email or make a phone call?
That is the reality of everyday life for many regional residents still waiting to move into the 21st century.
The daily struggle is in vast contrast to what city folk have become accustomed to — mobile phone reception and fast internet at our fingertips.
"Our mobile service is terrible. I can stand in the best spot in my house and still only get half a bar," Wheatbelt farmer Cherie Walton said.
Photo: Cherie Walton has complained about her poor mobile and internet service to no avail. (ABC News: Kathryn Diss)
Ms Walton lives in Hyden, a three-and-a-half hour drive east of Perth, but the internet and mobile phone reception is so patchy where she lives, she cannot get enough bandwidth during the day to do her bookkeeping.
"The only time I can really get onto the internet is 1:00am to about 5:00am, and then once everyone else gets back on I've got hardly any hope of having any service at all," she said."I normally wake up around 3:00am before everyone else gets out of bed and gets on the internet."
Ms Walton filed complaints with the telecommunications ombudsman and Telstra, but both ruled there was nothing they could do to solve her problem.
Photo: Waking up in the middle of the night to get work done is a necessity for Ms Walton. (Unsplash: Jay Wennington)
Money lost and lives at riskSonia Tipton lives a few kilometres closer to Hyden and runs a shearing contracting business — but she has had similar problems, and regularly has to drive into town to send emails and pay her staff.
She said she could not possibly quantify how much it had cost her business in lost productivity, let alone the grave safety risks.
"Mobile phone reception in this area in this area generally is not flash when the power goes down and we lose the lot. That scares the pants of me," Ms Tipton said."There are prangs in this area and if we can't get mobile reception, the person that's in the car can't either … there's a lot of tourists and trucks on that road. If someone had a heart attack or if there's a fire, that really scares me."
Photo: A number of inquiries have found poor mobile coverage contributed to road deaths. (ABC News: Andrew O'Connor)
More than 60 per cent of road deaths and a significant number of serious injuries happen outside metropolitan areas.
Multiple coronial inquiries into regional deaths have found inadequate mobile coverage contributed to fatalities, and a timely emergency response could have helped save lives.
Mobile towers designed to boost signalThe national Mobile Black Spot Program (MBSP), co-funded by industry and government, was set up in 2014 to help fix the problem by building more mobile towers in regional areas — but Hyden is one town still waiting to benefit.
A total of 756 towers are being built nationally under the first two rounds of the MBSP, however vast areas of regional Australia continue to suffer intermittent-to-poor signal strength.
Photo: A map showing Mobile Black Spot Program-funded base stations across Australia. (Supplied: Federal Government)
Tranche three of the project focused on outer metropolitan areas, sparking fears regional funding would peter out.
"At the National Farmers Federation (NFF) … they're starting to hear the whispers that there might not be that ongoing commitment for future rollouts of the MBSP," WA Farmers Federation executive officer of policy Grady Powell said.
"We have a couple of committees through the NFF where we focus wholly and solely on internet and mobile connectivity, and through those committees we're starting to get a bit of angst that commitment for funding is starting to dry up."
Photo: There are fears farmers in WA's vast outback may be left behind in the push to boost coverage. (ABC News: Chris Lewis)
While Telstra said it was committed to installing further regional towers, it warned this must be a joint effort across government and the private sector.
"None of these sites are commercially viable in their own right, and that's OK, you can do that do a degree," Telstra area general manager Boyd Brown said.
"To take the program further, it does require a good robust investment model — local, Commonwealth Government and ourselves."The ABC understands the Federal Government is considering redirecting some funds from the $300 million Universal Service Obligation (USO), which ensures regional landlines are maintained, into additional mobile infrastructure.
But the Commonwealth would not be drawn on future funding commitments until a review into regional telecommunications is completed later this year.
Photo: More than 750 mobile towers were funded in the first two rounds of the MBSP. (ABC News: Isabel Dayman)
Towers bring little help for someFor some country West Australians who considered themselves lucky to get a tower in their area, the outcome has been bittersweet— including at Badgebup, 300 kilometres south-east of Perth.
"One of the main problems we have with it now is that it doesn't have enough power," farmer Mal Packard said.
Photo: Badgebup farmer Mal Packard says his local tower is not effective enough. (ABC News: Mark Bennett)
"At our own property, about 8 kilometres away at the home farm, we can visually see the antenna, and we do not get as good a signal as we do from the other antenna which is 25km away.
"If [Telstra] were able to increase the power, there would be a lot better signal available."The Badgebup tower is less than 2 kilometres away from Jane Mary Richardson's free range pig farm, but even she is fortunate to get two bars of coverage.
"For me I feel lucky, but there are people 10 kilometres away and it's classed as a base station and it should be getting a range of 10 kilometres, but it's not getting that," she said.
Mrs Richardson said the community was baffled by the tower being built in a lower part of the district, after Telstra was offered the use of two other sites.
Photo: Jane Mary Richardson says she can only get two bars of mobile coverage at her property. (ABC News: Mark Bennett)
"The sites that were offered and suggested at high locations weren't taken up," she said.
Badgebup residents have lodged a petition with Telstra to complain about the signal.
In a statement, Telstra said it would send technicians to survey the area and would meet residents to assess their individual circumstances.
A long fight to get it rightKulin West is another of the 189 mobile coverage black spots across regional and rural WA that are benefiting from expanded 3G or 4G mobile coverage through the MBSP.
However, Kulin shire President Barry West said he had to fight to make sure their tower was put in the right place.
Photo: Kulin Shire president Barry West flanked by O'Connor MP Rick Wilson (L) and Telstra's Boyd Brown (R) at the Kulin West tower. (ABC News: Mark Bennett)
"It took us seven years to finally secure funding for a phone tower to be put up at Kulin West," he said.
"Then we realised that someone in Sydney, who obviously had no idea of the local geography, had chosen a site beneath an ironstone ridge that would effectively block 40 per cent of the population from receiving a signal."The site we had selected was the best site but it was going to be placed where the power was, which was just for convenience and cost saving … 1.2km away from where it should be.
"It eventually took a further 12 months and more than $200,000 to get it put in the right place on a hill."
Location, location, locationThe battles have not been confined to customers either, with Telstra and the federal departments co-funding the towers receiving pushback from State Government authorities and local councils over planned locations.
Six disputes over so-called "frustrated" sites are yet to be resolved.
In one example, a coronial inquest into fishing deaths on the south coast of WA recommended mobile phone coverage be improved at the site where 13 rock fishers have drowned since 1974.
Photo: The department managing the national park around Salmon Holes has rejected a tower. (Murray Martin)
A tower was funded to be built above the deadly fishing spot at Salmon Holes, near Albany, and emergency services requested it cover the coastline to aid quicker response times.
But the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions that manages the national park surrounding Salmon Holes has rejected the building of a tower, as it would affect the visual amenity of the park.
Negotiations are underway, but clearly what was designed to be a program to improve communication still has a long way to go.