Safety fears over mobile black spots

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STEVE.ADDISON
@thenews.co.nz

Mobile phone companies are working to improve cellphone coverage along major highways but there are still coverage black spots along major Central Otago roads.

New Zealand Automobile Association (AA) spokesman Dylan Thomsen said there were safety implications from a lack of mobile coverage.

“For example, there is particular concern about the top of the Lindis Pass, which can get frost, snow and ice. Accidents do happen up there in winter. The AA would like to see coverage improved around that area in particular.

“Depending on the time of day and the time of year, some of these roads don’t have a lot of traffic, so it can take a while for someone else to come along and help if there’s a problem. It’s wise for tourists to know the issue exists on some of our major tourist routes, so they can prepare themselves a little better for these trips by making sure they have warm clothing, water and some food in their vehicles.

“We’re pleased the Government is doing something to improve the situation with its Mobile Black Spot Fund to help local authorities improve infrastructure, but progress is a bit slower than we’d like.

“Our AA Roadservice staff are used to the situation. We use radios in our service vehicles and local contractors know their districts well, so can normally still find people who have broken down in good time,” he said.

Vodafone coverage is available on 83% of Central Otago highways, a Vodafone spokeswoman said.

“Improved mobile coverage and high speed broadband access in the Otago region continues to be a top priority for Vodafone.

“In the last 12 months, Vodafone has upgraded 18 existing sites to 4G in the Otago region and built two new sites, in Naseby and Cromwell’s Cornish Point. The resulting increase in coverage has had a dramatic impact on mobile coverage and access to reliable super-fast broadband for the thousands of people who live in and visit the region,” she said.

Although Vodafone’s network today covers almost 99% of New Zealand’s population and approximately 50% of the landmass, significant economic and geographical challenges have prevented us from extending our network to very low population density areas, and areas where the geography makes it hard for signals to travel long distances, such as the undulating nature of the Central Otago region.

“Specifically, looking at the State Highways that run through Central Otago, we have been able to achieve comprehensive coverage for State Highway 8A (Tarras to Luggate), with almost 100%.

“State Highways 8 (Milton to Cromwell/Cromwell to Omarama) and 85 (Alexandra to Ranfurly/Ranfurly to Palmerston) are slightly more challenging, yet we have been able to achieve 85% and 86% coverage respectively.

“State Highway 6 (Cromwell to Queenstown) is particularly challenging due to the geographical make-up of the surrounding land, with coverage reaching approximately 70% of the highway,” she said.

According to Spark, providing coverage in remote areas of the state highway network is extremely difficult.

“The landscape is often unforgiving, big mountains, plunging valleys etc block the signal, which makes it extremely hard to service these areas without building a very large number of towers,” Spark spokesman Sam Durbin said.

“On top of this, there are significant land, consent, labour and equipment costs. Mobile towers need a reliable source of power and a high-speed connection back to our network, and in remote areas this can be very difficult to get.

“On top of this, the resident populations in the remote areas of the network can be very, very low, and all the significant costs of building a mobile tower must be offset somehow. Unfortunately, in some places around New Zealand, it’s simply not possible to deliver mobile coverage because the economics are prohibitive,” he said.

Spark was unable to provide information on state highway coverage in Central Otago.

St John communications adviser Ian Henderson said St John was unaware of any motor accident in which there had been a delay in an emergency call being made due to a lack of cellphone coverage.