Monday, 7 August 2006

Telecommunications in the bush

We recently brought Ochre Arch into the 1970s by having the ‘phone connected. Telstra was the provider we selected given that the farm is 25 km from the nearest town (Grenfell) and they are the only telecommunications company that still has real people / staff living in and working from the smaller towns and thus have the ability to respond to faults and difficulties when and if things happen to go wrong. Telstra also happens to have a competitive range of services on offer.

I decided to write a post about our overall experience mainly to give the city folk some insight into what telecommunications really is like in the bush.

Our family is a reasonably heavy user of telephone, and particularly internet services. In all we now have services from 3 different providers:
Telstra: For the farm phone
Optus: Land line and cable internet to the home in Melbourne. We started using Optus whilst at Wollongong in the mid 1990’s – at a time when their rates were extremely competitive and they were in their ‘innovative customer-focused’ phase.
Three: 3 X 3G technology mobile ‘phones, recently upgraded from Orange. Our decision to go with Orange some years ago was because at that stage they had an awesome offer where calls to landlines within about a 2 km radius of the house were at local call rates AND for calls outside the Orange coverage area (basically Melbourne and Sydney metropolitan areas) Orange used the Telstra CDMA network. We switched to the 3G phones in response to an advice from Orange stating that they were going to shut down the CDMA phones at the end of August and had a “too good to refuse” offer on the table to cover the purchase of new mobiles.

A telephone service was first connected to Ochre Arch some time during the 1950’s when the Causers’ owned and lived on the place. At that time the connection was via overhead wiring and a ‘party line’ system operated.

In the 1970’s when the Hamptons’ owned the place but lived on their main property not far away, Telstra (or the PMG as it was then known) up-graded the wiring to an underground automatic exchange system. A 4-wire cable was installed from near the front gate to the edge of the house. No actual phone was ever connected to this cable as the Hamptons’ had no need for it.

The existence of the phone cable to the house came to light a couple of years ago when our neighbour was installing the new septic system for us. When digging the trench for the pipes to the septic tank the digger went through the cable. Our neighbour was able to repair the cable for us.

Arranging an appointment for the phone to be connected was as simple as calling 132200 and following the prompts. The lady who took my call had an amazing knowledge of Telstra’s systems and processes in respect of rural installations.

One of the first steps during this conversation was for her to allocate a telephone number to us. When she told me what the number was to be I commented that it seemed out of sequence with other numbers in the immediate vicinity. It turned out she had allocated a number appropriate to the Grenfell exchange rather than the Driftway exchange. This was corrected reasonably quickly and involved her speaking with a fellow who I gathered was based at Cowra.

The next step was to explain the exact location of the property. The national road mail box numbering system is particularly helpful here … and we were in some ways lucky that Australia Post (or whoever it was who oversaw the farm gate numbering system rollout) had allocated a road number at our front gate. I provided this address to the lady at Telstra. She also asked for the farm's Lot and Deposited Plan (DP) numbers.

We also discussed and agreed the type of plan we’d have access to and the services. Given we are not always at the farm I selected the HomeLine Budget plan and asked that ISD access not be made available. I also opted to pay the $3 / month additional fee to have a Telstra phone installed (rather than buying our own phone outright). By so doing it enables us to obtain replacements at no additional charge if something goes wrong … and also avoids the slim possibility that if we bought a handset it might not be compatible with Telstra’s systems. Given that Telstra offers its '101' message service at no charge this was included in the package of services.

The last step was to agree an appointment date and time. Telstra works on 4 hour windows for appointments … so we agreed one Monday 4th July at somewhere between 8.00 am and 12.00 pm.

No paperwork was required from me in setting up the telephone agreement. I did have to provide credit card and some other details, but none of the questions were overly onerous or intrusive. I was informed that the cost of the installation would be $299 (GST inclusive) which was quite reasonable in the circumstances.

A couple of days before the agreed installation date Telstra sent me an SMS on my mobile … just in case our situation had changed and the appointment had to be altered.

By nature I am somewhat cautious and do like to plan things. Whilst I had every confidence that the neighbour had repaired the cable properly when installing the septic system a couple of years ago I wanted to be able to take the technician to the exact spot if necessary. Thus I dug down to the point were the cable had been cut as had been detailed on the sewerage plan prepared and lodged with the Council. In so doing … you guessed it … I was a little too aggressive with my digging and managed to slice through the casing on the cable … meaning this would need to be fixed.

It was also not clear exactly where the cable met the edge of the house so I decided to dig a trench near the north-west corner of the house to see if I could locate the thing … without success. This then led to the decision to dig from the point where I’d sliced the cable casing right the way to the house … a distance of approximately 20 metres. You guessed it … in the process I managed to damage the cable in a couple more spots, but did manage to find the place I was looking for.

When we purchased the farm in 2003 we tidied up some of the rubbish that had accumulated during the previous 20 or so years. One part of this was the removal from the house of the ¾” galvanized water pipes that were at the back of the laundry and kitchen. I’d left these in the yard but felt they ‘just might come in handy’ as conduit for the telephone cable. Jan and I worked together and had the pipe in individual sections and joiners before the Telstra technician arrived.

Chris Handcock from Telstra, who happens to live in Grenfell, arrived at our place a little after 9.00 am … comfortably within the agreed 4 hour window. After exchanging the appropriate courtesies work on the project was underway.

Chris set off to identify a suitable ‘pair’ of wires from the Driftway exchange to the connection point near the front gate of our farm, and Jan and I set to work running some replacement cable (that Chris fortunately had in his work van) and assembling the ¾” galvanized pipe to act as conduit … from the edge of the house to the point where the old cable had been previously cut when the septic system was installed.

After what was probably a couple of hours Chris returned to the house, having located and tested a suitable pair of wires from the Driftway exchange. This process was far from simple as the cable that runs to the exchange is now old and has many joining boxes along it. From what we could gather this main line has regular problems and is really in need of replacement. Given the small number of people who use the line an upgrade is a long way off. Chris then checked that the cable from the house to the main cable at the front gate was intact. These investigations revealed that the old cable was damaged approximately 60 metres from the gate and had also been completely severed 116 metres from the gate – where it crossed the creek. The bad news was that the old cable on our place had to be totally replaced. Chris checked with his supervisor to see whether Telstra was responsible for covering the cost of replacement. It transpired that as the phone had never actually been connected the work effort was to be treated as a new connection rather than an installation … and we were thus responsible for digging a new trench to take the new cable. There was some good news, however. The roll of cable that Chris had in his truck looked like it just might be long enough to go from the house to the front gate, and Chris was willing to allow us to run the cable along the top of the ground then and there … on the understanding that we would separately arrange for a 450 mm (minimum) trench to be dug in the short term and for the cable to be laid in it and covered.

Jan and I proceeded to roll out the new cable from the house and were somewhat relieved that it was long enough. Chris then connected the cable to the main cable … and we moved on to the house to do the actual phone installation. This part of the process involved several steps. We agreed where the phone would be placed on the wall in the hallway and that we'd set up a second access point on the covered verandah. I removed some wall paneling and drilled a couple of holes where the white telephone wire was to go; and also ran the wire along the top of the ground under the house from where the black cable reached the house to where the phone was to go as well as another piece from the back of where the phone was to go to where the second outlet was to be. Chris installed a small grey junction box on one of the wooden stumps out the front of the house. He then discovered that he did not have a wall plate for the phone in his vehicle and headed back to Grenfell to get one. When he returned in an hour or so he connected the phone to the white wires and also installed the second connection plug.

It was then time for Chris to test the phone (yes, it worked) and to complete some brief paperwork – some of which was making notations in the junction box including date of installation, the fact that as we were not on mains power he could not connect to the ‘earth’ at that point, and that the junction box had been installed where it had because of our plans to renovate the house in the near term.

The whole process took very close to a full day, and we were very pleased with Chris’s efforts.

During the course of our discussions with Chris during the day we learned the following.

Chris is advised of each new ‘job’, in some cases via email, at the conclusion of the preceding one. In our case, he read the email telling him what he would be doing on 4/7/2006 at around 8.30 am.

A week of so before the 4/7/2006 Chris’s usual vehicle had broken down and it was in Orange being repaired. He was using a substitute vehicle and did not have ready access to some of his normal equipment and spares (such as wall installation plates for new phones).

The customer service team in the Telstra Call Centre who set up appointments with clients is not aware of events like the fact that Chris did not have his usual vehicle. Consequently he is not always able to complete all allocated duties on the first call.

The customer service team is based at the Gold Coast. Some of the members have a limited idea of the distances involved in rural work and think that neighbouring towns are like neighbouring suburbs in the cities … only a few minutes traveling between each one.

Due to the way jobs are assigned there have been occasions where technicians are sent to one town in the morning, then another town in mid morning, and then back to the first town later in the day. This creates wastage in terms of wages, time and transport costs … not to mention delays in customer services. There is a plus here, though … the technicians are able to focus on the job at hand and are not embroiled in handling customer service queues and such like.

There can also be wastage where technicians are assigned jobs in neighbouring towns at the same time e.g. the Cowra based technician can be working on a job at Grenfell while the Grenfell based technician is on a job at Cowra.

The take-up of broadband internet in rural areas has far exceeded estimated demand. The township of Grenfell (population approximately 2000) was allocated just over 200 ‘ports’ for broadband and all of these were taken up in just a few months. Telstra is now in the process of planning the provision of additional infrastructure to cater for 500 or so more ports.

The old cable was not termite-proof. This could explain why there was the break across the creek, but I doubt it!

We don’t have mains power on the house, and as a consequence cannot use a hands-free handset.

To assist Chris find our farm he was provided a map (file connected to the email he was sent by the customer service team) showing the DP number of our farm. Given that this Lot is some 403 acres in size this was not particularly helpful! All he really needed was the farm road address.

Our Internet Service Provider is Optus, and I pay an additional $5 per month for dial-up access when away from the cable connection at home. I tried to use the farm phone line for dial-up but found it to be obscenely inadequate, with the connection dropping out about every 20 seconds. And it needs to be remembered that each connection call is STD.

Telstra does have a very flexible way that users can operate their phone plans. It is possible to change the plan instantly by calling the 132200 number. At the time I made the Installation appointment it was possible to change the plan free on-line via the internet but this was recently withdrawn.

Our place is in an unofficial area within the Weddin Shire near Grenfell known as Pinnacle. When our details were input into the Telstra database the location was recorded as Pinnacle. This meant that when the information was transported into the White Pages the Grenfell postcode of 2810 defaulted to 2800, being the postcode of Orange which has an official region known as Pinnacle. I contacted Telstra who has the wheels in motion to correct the records in the White Pages, including showing the property name.

It is also possible to place a ‘bar’ the phone such that it has various ranges of access. When we are not on the farm we have the access set so that anyone who enters the house can only call ‘000’, the Telstra 13 prefix numbers and the free 1800 help lines.

Telstra also has an excellent internet capability where customers can check calls made since last bill; however the detail does not include individual numbers dialed.

Last week I participated in a teleconference to the USA. My intention was to up-grade my phone plan to Home Line Plus before making the call but for several reasons was unable to do so. This meant that I was charged full ISD rates rather than the lesser amount under the Telstra Half Hour option (accessed by dialing 0018 rather than 0011 to get an international line). Telstra has subsequently adjusted the amount to what I felt the charge should have been, and I will be more aware of what to do next time. Details of Telstra’s ISD rates can be found at the following web address:

The 132200 number can only be accessed between 7.00 AM and 6.00 PM during the standard 5 working days per week.

When calling to change the plan that I’m on the revised plan rates apply from after midnight on the morning the call is made to change the plan i.e. if I have made calls earlier today and then ring to change my plan then the rates charged for the earlier calls will be at the rates applicable to the plan I’ve changed to today.

There is still an option to be able to alter the phone plan via the internet but this involves paying an additional monthly fee.

The day after the phone was connected I had a decision to make regarding digging a trench for the cable. Given I had the time, needed some exercise, and that we’d had some good recent rains making the soil very easy to dig I elected to dig the trench manually i.e. by shovel and foot! The digging project took about 5 days on and off, and I was very fortunate that Jan was willing and able to help with the trench filling.

For those that are into trivia, we moved about 25.8 cubic metres of soil – twice; given a final trench length of 287 metres, at a depth of 450 mm, and width of 200 mm.

A picture of our trench digging work in progress is attached. The 3 trees (without leaves) that can (just) be seen on the edge of the creek are fig trees … that have been growing there merrily for over 100 years.

When we had the Orange CDMA mobile telephones we were able to receive calls from a small area on the front step on the west of the house and make and receive calls on the highest point on the farm which we call Lookout Rock. Now that we have changed to 3G technology we can no longer receive calls at the house; although access is still available from Lookout Rock (about 1.5 km from the house). Telstra is still in the process of up-grading to 3G technology and hopefully our farm access issue will be resolved by the change-over deadline of 2008. The following article provides a little more information on Telstra’s intentions:

I happen to be a regular user of the ‘nab’ internet banking service. This has an outstanding feature where customers can set things up so that a password is sent to a mobile phone with payments and transfers to accounts other than the customer’s own accounts. To explain further, if I wanted to send a payment to, for example, a suppliers transactional account at their bank I would input the transaction details into my nab Internet Banking thingy via my PC. When I press ‘send’ button a transaction password is sent via SMS to my mobile phone. I input this password into the PC and the transaction is then actually sent off. This nab offers this feature free of charge and it provides me with comfort knowing that in order for someone to fraudulently extract money from my account using internet banking they will need to know my user ID and sign-in password and also have access to my mobile phone. The nab recently announced that they have taken steps such that those customers who do not have this SMS password transaction feature will have a much lower daily funds transfer limit. The fact that I am now unable to receive SMS calls at the house on the farm means that my ability to transact via the internet is reduced. Of course as I’ve already pointed out my ability to access the internet from the farm is pretty much non-existent anyway, but that’s not the point.

I am unable to access Telstra broadband from the farm as the Driftway exchange does not have this capability. The Telstra staff I have spoken to have encouraged me to log a request for broadband access via the internet, and to speak to our neighbours and ask them to do the same. I have not done this yet.

Obviously I am not able to access the internet via my mobile telephone whilst on the farm and from what I have read this would be far too expensive in any case.

So this leaves us with arranging satellite access, but to do this I will need to be on mains power (or solar). The cost of getting mains power to the farm is in the order of $50,000 ($35,000 per km) plus cost of wiring etc. Not simple!

One thing that shines out for me from my recent dealings with Telstra has been the outstanding quality of their staff. Clearly Telstra has an excellent staff recruitment process, invests heavily in training and skills development, and has a strong staff support and customer focus ethos. Impressive, really!

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