Elon Musk’s Starlink touted as a Telstra outage solution in Birdsville, Bedourie

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Businesses in some of Queensland’s most popular outback tourist destinations say they are trading “in the dark ages” for days on end during unexpected, but increasingly frequent, Telstra outages.

Birdsville and Bedourie have a combined population of less than 1,000, but the towns attract tens of thousands of visitors each year for coveted backcountry events and experiences.

However, there have been three major telecom outages lasting two to three days at a time since March.

Outages lead to the disappearance of Internet and mobile telephone services and, in Bédourie, even landlines no longer work.

Royal Flying Doctor Service Charleville base manager Liane Spencer said there was a risk of life-threatening situations arising due to the blackouts.

“If people have had an accident in the field or on a road and cannot use their mobile phone to contact us, then there is a real potential for lives lost,” Ms Spencer said.

The critical connection is interrupted

Residents of Bedourie said they were unable to call Triple-0 during a three-day outage last week.

Services were interrupted twice for two days in March and once for eight hours in Birdsville and Bedourie.

Telstra said the outages were due to parts not being on site.

Bedourie’s emergency services, including the police station and health department, have access to satellite phones and satellite internet during blackouts, but many tourists and residents do not.

Bedourie Roadhouse worker Doug Cooms says he is still tracking overdue fuel accounts since Telstra’s first outage in March.(Provided: Simpson Desert Oasis)

Bedourie resident Paula Brown said she was worried she could not be reached by her two sons working on cattle farms.

“It worries me that they might be hurt and there’s no way to let me know they’re hurt,” she said.

She said people in COVID isolation would become completely isolated when they couldn’t communicate with anyone outside.

‘Frustration peak’: Businesses eye Starlink

The Birdsville hotel is so fed up with the outages that it turned to Starlink, a satellite internet service founded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, to see if it can help.

A pub clerk poses with a box
Birdsville hotel operations manager Darren Collins has taken steps to sign up for a Starlink service in response to frequent Telstra outages.(Provided: Birdsville Hotel)

The co-owner of the hotel said her level of frustration had peaked.

“We just lost all respect for Telstra,” she said.

“We just don’t think they really care what really happens in communities like this that depend on this stuff.

“We will engage with Starlink and see if we can put a better system in place.”

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The hotel is a rare spot in the city that has a copper landline and is often a triage point for families who cannot contact loved ones.

“So [we’ve] really been left in the Dark Ages,” said COO Darren Collins.

Telstra: get a backup

Telstra is recommending residents affected by the outages buy satellite internet and satellite phones as backup.

Telstra’s regional executive for Australia, Loretta Willaton, said a satellite-like service or even a satellite phone was a “good insurance policy” to consider.

Telstra’s cheapest satellite phone and plan costs around $120 per month, which does not include the $1.20 per minute cost of a call.

Three Telstra phone booths in Birdsville
Telstra recommends residents purchase satellite alternatives to have on hand during outages.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

Ms Brown said the extra cost on top of her usual phone and internet bills would make it “virtually impossible” to pay.

Diamantine Shire Mayor Robbie Dare said residents shouldn’t have to buy satellite links as the council had contributed millions to a 550km optical cable network which was completed in 2017.

But Kristy Sparrow, regional telecommunications attorney and Alpha breeder, likened having a telecommunications backup to having a generator during power outages.

Ms Sparrow said satellite internet – including NBN satellite – had improved dramatically in recent years and was more affordable than a satellite phone.

A woman on the phone sitting at her desk in front of a computer.
Alpha breeder Kristy Sparrow says having a backup for telecommunications is like having a generator for backup power.(ABC News: Pip Courtney)

“As consumers, we need to be a little better prepared in the event of an outage, because there will always be some.”

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