Walhalla still in the dark

A TOURIST destination in the heart of Gippsland, which welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each year, will continue running without internet service and limited mobile phone coverage.

Walhalla missed out on round one of the National Mobile Black Spot Programme despite being nominated as one of 163 black spot areas across the McMillan electorate.

Walhalla and Mountain Rivers Tourism president Michael Leaney said he was disappointed, although not surprised.

“The problem Walhalla faces is in those first three criteria (of the program),” Mr Leaney said.

“Walhalla’s topography means that in order to get a mobile phone service to work, the towers need to be within the township.”

Mr Leaney, who runs the Walhalla Star Hotel, said people would often phone his business in the middle of the night to get in contact with a relative camping around town.

He said limited coverage made it “almost impossible” to run a business, and tourists were unable to make a live reservation online for the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine and Walhalla Goldfields Railway.

The Walhalla Heritage and Development League organised a petition with about 1500 signatures, attended a public hearing and sent an application advocating for Walhalla’s black spot issue to be addressed.

To be eligible for new or improved mobile coverage, a town must have co-contributions from applicants, local or state governments and private mobile network operators.

Telstra Gippsland area general manager Loretta Willaton said the program allocated funding based on several criteria, involving the number of people who would benefit from a new tower.

“Australia is a big country and building a mobile network to cover our entire landmass is simply not technically or commercially feasible,” Ms Willaton said.

“We will continue to look for opportunities to address these areas, which is why we also announced we will roll-out an additional small cell (stations).

“(These) are well-suited to delivering mobile data services in small country towns.”

Federal Member for McMillan Russell Broadbent said he was in constant contact with Federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Parliamentary Secretary, Paul Fletcher.

He said he would continue fighting for appropriate funding to build a mobile base station in Walhalla.

“Walhalla was among the many places in the electorate I spoke to my colleagues about,” Mr Broadbent said.

“I was disappointed Walhalla missed out in the first round of funding and I appreciate the townspeople’s frustration.

“Walhalla is a tourist mecca and is deserving of quality mobile phone coverage.”

The national program will continue until 2018, with Telstra and the government yet to determine where to allocate the additional small cells.

Despite this, Mr Leaney said he did not expect Walhalla to receive a mobile base station any time soon.

“You can call for years for the speed limit to change until someone wraps themselves around a tree, and then it can change overnight,” Mr Leaney said.

“I think that Walhalla’s greatest possibility for this to happen is to have someone to die.

“It’s a sad thing to say, but that will push it over the edge. The likelihood of this getting up in round two is very remote.”

More information can be found at www.communications.gov.au/mobile_coverage.

To register for the small cell rollout or round two of the program, email mobilecoverage@communications.gov.au