Is Radio an Essential Service? – A South Australian Outback Case Study

It was reported that residents of the South Australian Outback endured five days without power in the month of September 2016. This is hardly news, but why the airwaves went completely silent for such an extended period is. The case of the outback town of Leigh Creek in the Northern Flinders Ranges is examined in the interests of learning more.

Why did this town and surrounding towns lose radio broadcasts for five days between September 28 and October 1? Is radio still considered an essential service and if so why has there been no reporting in the news of the failure of this essential service? Historically, efforts were made to ensure viability of non urban radio services:

The government tried various methods to persuade stations to establish operations in regions of sparse population over the next few years, but none was very successful. A workable solution was finally found in 1932 when the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was set up as a national broadcaster to be funded by the government from listener licence fees (Thomas 1980, p12; Inglis 1983, p.17). Australia now had a dual broadcasting system with the ABC as a public utility providing an essential service for the whole country and the commercial stations basically as businesses attempting to make a profit, where there was sufficient population to ensure economic viability. The Report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Wireless Broadcasting (Gibson 1942) confirmed this as the most satisfactory broadcasting system for Australia, and this system was enacted in legislation by the Australian Broadcasting Act 1942
While state operated essential services commissions do not include radio as ‘essential’ the Australian Bureau of Meteorology does include High Frequency (HF) radio. Their Ionospheric Prediction Service (IPS) exists for this reason, given that HF wave propagation depends upon the stability of the ionosphere which is disturbed by solar activity.

At the IPS offices in Sydney, a small team of highly qualified Bureau specialists keeps watch over a busy network of monitoring stations and observatories across Australia, the Pacific and Antarctica, which study changes in the space environment – and the Earth’s magnetic field – that may impact on some of the country’s most critical communications technology.

Their speciality is HF radio, which remains essential for the long-distance communications supporting some of Australia’s most important transport and public safety sectors, from civil aviation and national defence, to the police, fire and maritime safety services.

However, this is hardly useful for the majority of outback residents and does not answer the question as to why the radio service that were taken for granted in the Leigh Creek area failed during the last power outage.

The answer arrives via the delivery method of radio waves and how this has changed since the closure of the Alinta Leigh Creek Coal Fields. The following explanation is provided by the website FM scan and shows the transmissions from the site of what was an essential service (power) is no longer available. These screen captures show comprehensive broadcast coverage of ABC JJJ, Radio National and Local ABC North West from the Alinta mine site.


This does not explain the failure of the ABC radio transmission from the tower shown South East of Leigh Creek. The assumption is that the signal delivery via micro wave repeater stations from Port Augusta is dependent upon grid electricity.

This pipeline of data is quite massive and now operated by Telstra, begging the question why fast copper connected internet is not made available via the route shown on the map – a 1 Gbps ( gigabits per second) connection?

aarnet-connectionTo the reader that asked the question of why the service not classed as essential and yet taken for granted is no longer available, I hope this review explains the situation.

The plug has been pulled on the northern outback region of South Australia since the closure of the coal mine and the ball is now in Telstra’s court to provide back up power generation to keep radio and internet services available during blackouts.

Failing this the South Australian government may choose to address the continuity of services in outback regions.