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Telstra pauses billing for town where 10% have COVID-19

·3-min read
SIlhouette of phone with Telstra logo, Wilcannia street at sunset.
Telstra has offered greater support for the COVID-hit town of Wilcannia. (Images: Getty).

Telstra (TLS.AX) will pause billing and service suspension for users in the COVID-hit regional NSW town of Wilcannia, following lobbying by community members and musician Nina Las Vegas.

The remote Central Darling Shire town has a population of roughly 745, but has recorded 77 cases of COVID-19, or around 10 per cent of the population.

The spread of COVID-19 has caused profound concern for the predominantly Aboriginal community, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples often have higher rates of other health issues and less access to health care.

Wilcannia is also one of the country’s poorer areas, with the 2016 Census reporting a median weekly household income of $989, compared to the Australian median income of $1,438.

Wilcannia’s mobile coverage has also been reported as among the worst in Australia, with Wilcannia Central School deputy principal Sarah Donnelley telling the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2020 that only three families in the town had reliable internet.

Nina Azgarian, who uses the stage name Nina Las Vegas, has been lobbying Telstra to provide greater support to residents in Wilcannia, Walgett and Dubbo.

“W​hat action have you taken for the Far Western NSW Communities currently in lockdown, including those in #Wilcannia, #Walgett and Dubbo? Even those with data on their phones and Internet access are having trouble connecting,” she wrote in a message to the telco on Twitter on 26 August.

In a statement provided to Yahoo Finance, Telstra NSW regional general manager Mike Marom said Telstra has been in talks with the local council about installing a small cell to increase the area’s network capacity, and will now move to install the service as quickly as possible.

Additionally, the telco has paused all billing and service suspensions for local residents, and is working with Maari Ma Aboriginal Health to distribute additional pre-paid credit to vulnerable community members.

“Telstra is the only mobile network that has mobile base stations in Wilcannia, delivering 3G and 4G services to the community. However, we recognise these sites need additional support to provide better coverage,” Marom said.

“To help solve this, in the short term we are bringing in a temporary mobile base station that will be installed near the hospital. Preparation works have been happening this week and we hope the new site will be operational late this week.

“Once the temporary site is activated, as a priority we will be giving extra data to all Telstra mobile services in the Wilcannia post code.

“We are also working with the local council to install a new and permanent small cell base station on the hospital site to increase capacity of the Telstra Network in the area. If all things go to plan and we don’t have any delays, Telstra hopes this facility could be installed and operational in the next few weeks.”

What else can Australian customers in need access?

Telstra customers experiencing financial difficulties across Australia can access payment extensions, or can request to suspend services they don’t need by contacting Telstra.

It also offers Disaster Assistance packages to those who meet its criteria. People will be contacted by text if they have been affected by a natural disaster like a bushfire or a flood.

Telstra won plaudits last year after wiping firefighters’ mobile bills to $0 during the catastrophic December 2019 and January 2020 bushfires.

"Today we’re doing our part to thank our volunteer firefighters by providing them with free mobile bills over December and January," said Telstra chief Andy Penn.

"We want to do this to show our thanks to firefighters for their efforts in helping keep communities safe... We’ve all witnessed the confronting scenes of bushfires around the country, and awed at the heroic volunteers battling the blazes."

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