At a home in the remote Kimberley, a woman waves her phone in the air for hours trying to get a signal to pay a bill.
A man’s bank account was closed due to a dodgy phone line, which raises suspicions of fraudsters.
And on a picturesque farm, families faced with a sudden, shocking death cannot call an ambulance.
These scenes are set in regional Australia, where residents without access to telephone and internet services struggle to keep up with the fast-moving online world.
Latest figures show 11 per cent of Australians are “highly excluded” from digital services, meaning they don’t have access to affordable internet or don’t know how to use it.
This is approximately 2.8 million people.
So how are they coping with government and banking services going online?
“This becomes a major problem for people living in communities where they cannot access internet services, and this has become very apparent during the COVID pandemic,” said RMIT University researcher Daniel Featherstone.
“It limits people’s ability to participate in society and access the services they need to live – we’re talking about some of the most vulnerable, low-income people in the country who can’t access services designed to help them.”
Rates are improving, but some are lagging behind
Digital connectivity is a fancy phrase that describes whether or not people can access an accessible Internet that they understand how to use.
National data show that rates are rising steadily, but there are sections of society that are lagging behind.
People in capital cities are more likely to be online than people in regional areas, and it’s no surprise that people with low incomes struggle to get online.
There are various reasons for the digital divide – many older Australians lack online literacy and in some areas a lack of infrastructure limits opportunities.
Urgent contact is a concern
One example is the Mimbi community in Guniandi Country in the far north of Western Australia.
It has a single phone booth, but no cell tower.
Local tour guide Ronnie Gimbidi says the main problem is not being able to call for help in an emergency.
“Bad things happen to us, snake bites, forest fires and accidents can happen, and we need a service like this, we need the phone to always be there,” he says.
Ronnie and his wife installed the community’s only Internet connection to run their tourism business.
“The neighbors keep coming over to use it, which can be annoying,” he says.
“It would be great to get a phone tower or public Wi-Fi that everyone could use.”
Centrelink offices remain open
The federal government has committed to making all its services available online by 2025, raising concerns that Australians without internet will be at a disadvantage.
It is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in improving regional telecommunications, and Social Services Minister Bill Shorten says there are security systems in place.
“It’s a challenge – a lot of Australians are going online, no doubt about it,” Mr Shorten told the ABC.
“But there is a proportion of people who still like to use Service Australia offices.
“There are 318 offices left and we are committed to maintaining that number so we don’t see any reduction in the number of Centrelink and Medicare offices beyond what we have inherited.”
While this will bring relief to those living in metro areas, it is of no comfort to those living far from personal services.
The growth of Internet services is an exciting prospect for people living remotely.
But the first-ever audit of remote public telecommunications shows how far there is still a long way to go before residents can take advantage of the opportunities on offer.
Living in remote areas is an eye opener
Mapping the Digital Divide is a four-year project funded by Telstra and the Australian Research Council to measure telecommunications quality in 1,200 remote Australian Aboriginal communities.
Dr. Daniel Featherstone says the team found some disturbing situations.
“I think Australians would be very surprised if they went to one of these remote communities and tried to use their mobile phone or internet on a day-to-day basis – they would be very, very disappointed,” he said.
“They’d probably also be shocked that people still rely on public phone boxes – it’s a real eye-opener.”
In one community, a man’s bank account was closed because the phone line was so scratchy that the call center suspected he was a fraud.
He had to fly 500 kilometers to restore the account personally.
The first results show alarmingly low scores for digital inclusion in the sampled communities.
The community of Pormpuraaw in Queensland scored 37 out of 100, 25 per cent below the national average.
The satellite option creates new problems
Remote residents describe their frustration trying to complete simple daily tasks such as paying a bill or making a doctor’s appointment.
In the community of Muluja, Katrina Cherel can only get a phone connection in the small corner of her balcony verandah.
“The only coverage is the local school, so we just wave our phones in the air trying to get a signal, but often it doesn’t work,” she says.
“I know some of the communities here have a cell tower, which would be nice.
“We’ve been waiting for a while, and since everything is going online, we need to get something out as well.”
Residents can access the internet by signing up to the Sky Muster satellite system.
But in a region with low incomes and a high cost of living, few families can afford it.
Some Kimberley residents have given up trying to create an account because a resident address is required when few Aboriginal people have street names or numbers.
COVID revealed systemic ‘chaos’
It’s not just about remote communities.
In Fitzroy Crossing, Washington, the Ninjilingari Cultural Health Service is stuck with a sluggish Internet connection that makes it difficult to make telemedicine appointments and download files.
Corporate Services Manager Callum Lamond says the scale of the telecoms problem became apparent during the COVID pandemic.
“We had hundreds of people who got sick but didn’t have a phone or internet, so they couldn’t register for help,” he said.
“Some houses had 10 or 15 people, but only one mobile phone, so they had to send one person to try to get reception and call us.
“We had to register everyone online with all their names and details so they could receive food parcels and other COVID support.
“It was a crazy stressful and really difficult time.”
High-stakes tech hub
Communications Minister Michelle Rowland says the government is aware of the challenges in improving internet services in regional Australia.
“Bridging the digital divide — especially among First Nations communities — is a matter of personal conviction,” she said in a statement.
Dozens of cell towers are installed in remote campsites and Aboriginal communities each year as part of the Mobile Black Spot program, with more than 600,000 regional sites connected thanks to increased NBN funding.
Those who work in regional telecommunications say that the biggest problem right now is not a lack of Internet service, but a vast array of options that do not transmit well.
The Regional Technical Center is funded to help people navigate the growing number of technology options through one-on-one phone consultations.
Jen Medway runs the program from her family sheep farm in the ACT and knows the high stakes first hand.
“Unfortunately, there were seven deaths on farms in our area [in recent years]which is absolutely horrible,” she said.
“In four of those situations, people had to leave the scene to get help because there was no mobile service, so it’s very difficult to be in the region of Australia.”
Every week, her team receives between 50 and 100 requests for help from people in the region trying to get online.
“There are many frustrations, but there are almost always technological solutions that can overcome the problems,” she says
“The main thing people are trying to overcome is misinformation because it’s a commercial environment and they’re hearing different things from different providers, sometimes giving conflicting advice.
“That’s why we’re here to be independent and provide good information because it’s a complicated space.”
The team is currently expanding to be able to help people in more regions of the country.