Mobile black spots: Meet the Kiwis with worse mobile coverage than the developing world

Teresa Wyndham-Smith remembers with a laugh when it first dawned on her that mobile coverage was better in West Africa than the West Coast of New Zealand.

That was five years of signal silence ago.

The 57-year-old writer and journalist returned to her home country after a decade in Ghana, and plonked herself down in Te Miko, a settlement on the 1000-plus kms of mobile black spots along New Zealandhighways.

“I’m originally from Wellington but I was living in Ghana in West Africa for 10 years before I moved to the Coast,” Wyndham-Smith said.

“The mobile reception in Ghana was so much better. I was totally surprised.”

Wyndham-Smith says it was striking how that developing country had simply leap-frogged a whole New Zealand region into mobile ubiquity.

“A lot of African countries have gone from not having landlines straight into mobile technology. It’s been hugely important for economies in Africa and keeping people in contact,” she says.

“Then you move to the Coast and suddenly the mobile network is pretty much non-existent. It was a bit of a head-scratcher. But we’ve adapted.”

Part of that adaptation has included clambering over gates guarding a muddy hilltop driveway to reach a neighbour’s landline following a road accident.

Yet, the black spots amount to a logistical deficiency successive National and Labour governments have been well aware of.

In August 2017, National under Bill English invested $140 million to set up the Mobile Black Spot Fund (MBSF) and the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI).

The policy promised to provide coverage to 1000km of state highway and 70,000 and 100 tourist areas which lacked cellphone reception.

In December 2018, the Labour-led Coalition Government expanded the fund by $130m to cover 1400km of state highways, 80,000 households and 159 tourists areas.

The ambition is to extend coverage to the 5 per cent of New Zealand where people get by without cellphone reception.

How the rollout is going with the target of achieving its aim by the 2022 delivery date is less definitive.

As of September last year only 27 per cent (157 towers) of the planned MBSF mobile towers are live and operating.

That leaves 73 per cent of the planned towers to be built in the final two years of a five-year project.

But Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications David Clark assured the Herald everything was still on track to be completed by 2022 and “progressing well”.

“The Mobile Black Spots Fund (MBSF) is improving the availability of mobile services to support safety on state highways and enhance visitor experience at key tourist destinations where no mobile coverage currently exists.

“Recently this helped to extend coverage to black spots along State Highway 6 in the Buller region and 12 in Northland.”

The minister said that as of last June, 711km or 51 per cent of the targeted 1400km werecovered.

Clark said by that by the end of 2022 “all mobile customers will be able to utilise mobile coverage regardless of their chosen service provider”.

However, as many West Coasters have found out, the towers will only provide 4G.

Among Coasters, 3G mobiles are far from antiquated.

Even then, the land-line still reigns supreme in most households along the beautiful but, notoriously crash prone, SH 6.

Punakaiki is small community on the edge of Paparoa National Parkfamous for its prehistoric pancake rocks.

Last September locals got their first mobile tower outside the Punakaiki Tavern adding a new point of reception between the 60-odd km mobile black spot stretch between Greymouth and Charleston.

Wyndham-Smith’s home sits 500m off SH6 down a gravel road overlooking the Tasman Sea.

At Te Miko, just a couple of km north of Punakaiki, she has not been covered by the new mobile tower.

After five years, Wyndham-Smith is conditioned to a home life devoid of mobile convenience.

But the safety risks of a winding elevated coastal highway prone to rockfall and without mobile coverage is something she’s frequently reminded of.

In those five years she’s twice been personally responsible for racing off to alert emergency services following a crash on the coastal highway.

“It was actually a Sunday morning and we were heading for the nearby Fox River market,” she said.

“There was a mini van that had just overturned in the ditch and turned up to have nine Chinese tourists and a tour guide inside.

“Other people had just stopped and people were starting to pull out their phones to try and call for help. I knew there was no reception there.”

Wyndham-Smith knew there was a farm house overlooking the accident, and so raced for that closest landline.

“I sort of scaled a gate in a very undignified manner, and I tell ya, I was wearing totally inappropriate clothing. Desperate times, desperate measures,” she said.

“And I ruined my Birkenstocks up this steep farm path to the door. I was breathing my last by the time I got up there. Luckily Catherine, who I know, was home [and] we were able to call help from there.”

An ambulance was called but fortunately there were no major injuries.

Another rescue effort was needed when she encountered an accident while driving to work at the Westport News along the Coast Road at dawn.

“I was going each day to Westport to work at the paper and often you were driving in the dark and I came across a lot of stuff really but there was one classic morning,” Wyndham-Smith says.

“It was after Charleston and there was a stretch of road where NZTA had just been working on a new safety barrier.

“I think there may have even been a fatal accident there previously and I was aware of it because I had done some stories for the paper.”

The car had panel damage but was at rest.

“I hopped out to take a photo for the paper, went across the road got a bit closer and suddenly this head came up from the driver’s seat. I nearly died. I couldn’t believe it.

“It turned out it was three young guys. They had been driving through the work site the previous night when it was dark. Either hadn’t seen the sign or underestimated how slow you’ve got to go on gravel, lost control, the vehicle spun a few times, fetched up there in the dark, no reception for the phone there.

“They weren’t actually injured but they had no idea where they were. They didn’t know what to do.”

Wyndham-Smith said while the crashes were not life-threatening she worried that emergency response times were compromised because of the lack of coverage.

“You’re conscious of it because these aren’t isolated incidents,” she said.

“You’re wasting a lot of time in terms of response. By the time you’ve left the area you can’t give such a precise location either because you’ve moved out of there. You [can only] give verbal references.”

Even so, Coasters have become used to the lack of mobile coverage.

Maria Johnson, who works at the Punakaiki Tavern next to the new mobile tower, said its presence was mainly of use to tourists rather not locals.

“People are actually used to living without it along the coast here. Some people have rural Wi-Fi up at their houses and stuff like that. But they’re Coasters, mate, so you know. So some probably choose not to have it.”

Janette Ashby of Punakaiki Canoes said that, while the tower was mainly used by visitors, it did offer a benefit for her business.

“We’ve got one [mobile tower], it’s just outside the tavern at the moment. It’s just some people can’t connect if their phones aren’t 4G. It’s has been there for a couple of months,” Ashby said.

“I can get cell reception here, my husband can’t because he hasn’t the greatest phone.

“Certainly for tourists coming into the area …. they can talk to us about their bookings and what they’re doing and that sort of thing during the tourist season.”

West Coast regional councillor Laura Coll McLaughlin, who lives in Addisons Flat, mid-way between Westport and Charleston, has mobile black spots either side of the property she shares with her partner and son.

“Where we are we’re good – just. But not at the end of our driveway.”

Having grown up in the West Coast and returning after universityColl McLaughlin saidshe appreciates how much better mobile reception is getting, rather than reflecting on how bad it was to begin with.

“I think because we’ve come from a time when cellphone coverage was so poor, that now we think, oh it’s not very far to drive if we need to get help.

“Whereas people who haven’t been used to having such poor coverage think ‘oh goodness, I don’t have coverage here, what will I do?’ We maybe come at it from a different perspective.”

Coll McLaughlin thinks the mobile silence has subtly influenced the routines of the affected West Coast communities.

“It’s just one of those things if you don’t have it everywhere you don’t come to rely on it in the quite the same way as having it all the time,” she said.

“You think, ‘I’ll need to have coverage here at this particular time’ – you have to make certain you are in a certain place. But really, because we are so aware of it and we plan our lives, almost subconsciously, around it.

“These days, we’re all quite dependent on our phones – well the vast majority of people. And I would wonder if we were not because we can’t be. If you knew you needed to be in contact with someone or you needed to tell someone you’d arrived somewhere safely, I would say most West Coasters would have in the back of their mind thinking where the black spots are.”

Coll McLaughlin said those who suffer the most from the black spots are tourists.

The safety aspect is the most pressing issue “because people don’t conveniently have accidents where there’s coverage”.

“Like, our main type of recreational activities on the West Coast tend to be nature-focused and wilderness-focused, and we often have tourists, whether they’re domestic tourists or international tourists who aren’t really aware of this situation. So if they get themselves into difficulty it can make it a lot harder for them to get help.”

The West Coast councillor for the Buller constituency recalled an incident when unwary tourists got into strife at a Buller beach.

“The coverage at Tauranga Bay is very sketchy. It is one of our most popular but also most dangerous beaches,” Coll McLaughlin said.

“During January 2016 – I remember I was pretty heavily pregnant – three tourists were stranded on Wall Island at Tauranga Bay and that [mobile black spot] certainly added a layer of complication for co-ordination between us volunteers, the police, St John and the rescue helicopter as the whole fiasco was happening at dusk and with heavy sea mist.

“During civil defence events, timely communication is utterly critical. Eliminating black spots enables better communication of alerts to residents and supports the community to better look after its own.”

The Coasters appreciate the reliability of a landline as a refuge against the rugged isolation around them.

Obviously, they all still have them.

“What’s really funny is if you go into a store or something in Wellington and you give your contact details and you give a landline people think ‘oh how quaint, that’s really old-school’. Please, landline, this is all we’ve got!” Wyndham-Smith said.

“Being contactable in a simple way, we depend on our landlines because we obviously can’t depend on our mobiles.”

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