Locals in the small outback town of William Creek — a 15-hour drive north of Adelaide — have never been able to use their phones to check the weather or scroll through social media.
Tourists passing through could not call emergency services or use online maps.
But this week, on the roof of local pilot Trevor Wright’s hangar, a small satellite dish with a 1-metre antenna — similar to those used to access pay TV — has been installed.
However, locals are not using it to tune into reality television. Instead they are now able to pick up their mobiles and connect with the outside world.
For the first time, the town’s residents and tourists passing through can use their mobile phones via the Optus 3G network.
It is part of the federal government’s Mobile Black Spot Program, an initiative to help deliver crucial telecommunications infrastructure to regional and remote areas across the country.
Mr Wright said he had been working with the telco for years to get service in the region.
“It’s just taken us to a new era,” he said.
“It’s not only fantastic for the locals, and government services, but [also] coming into the tourist season.
“It’s one of those things people take for granted as they did with phone boxes 40 years ago, when they were starting to move them out to the bush.”
The new service does not reach very far. It only has a 3-kilometre radius and degrades quite quickly the further you get out of town.
But it is already having an impact.
Outback Communities Authority chair Cecilia Woolford said it would ensure the region became more welcoming for tourists and would be a “real economic driver” for outback communities.
“I’ve got bigger things on my roof than what this thing is,” she said.
“But it means that people can drive in, they can use their mobile phone, they can talk to their families, they can send their Facebook pictures, they can let people know that they’re safe.
“It means they’re going into the pub, they’re going to drink, they’re going to eat, and they’re actually going to stay longer.”
New service an emergency lifeline for tourists
Before the new service was switched on, those passing through could not call 000 or 112 in an emergency.
Ms Woolford said that was a major concern, because many tourists tended to head north without doing their research first.
“What we had was people coming from overseas, which is actually what really worried me, people coming from overseas use Google Maps,” she said.
“We had people out there that were quite unsafe and didn’t know where they were going.
“[They] didn’t know little things like take water, wear a hat, take fly spray, don’t go off the road.”
Optus national planning manager Vince Mullins said William Creek’s new technology was the result of an 18-month trial in Oodnadatta.
“Unlike a normal mobile base station, which is quite expensive and large, we’ve shrunk that down and we’re basically able to provide hot spot coverage in these really remote areas,” he said.
“To deploy, it’s very quick, as opposed to building a massive tower, and it’s great because we can use satellite technology to backhaul it rather than having to run microwave or fibre.”
Optus, the South Australian and federal governments have invested $8.5 million to improve mobile coverage across regional and remote areas in the state.
More than a dozen other remote locations will also see similar technology soon.
But for now, William Creek is celebrating the biggest thing to happen since they got internet access.
“We’re only one example of what’s going to happen all over the outback,” Mr Wright said.
“It’s been a momentous change.”