Regional | Sustainability |

Speaking the same language: how we’re reaching out to First Nations communities

By Telstra First Nations Team May 5, 2022

In some of Australia’s most remote communities, a small band of dedicated employees is battling to bring clear communications – and honest conversations – to people who really need them.

Providing communications in some of the most remote and wide-open spaces on the planet presents major physical and technical challenges. But – like a mobile call itself – there are few things that are as important to remote customers as a clear, candid, easy-to-understand conversation.

“Ultimately people love talking to someone face to face, even if it is to complain about phone coverage or to check their bills,” laughs Priscilla West, the ebullient Townsville woman who since April 2021 has worked as Telstra’s first dedicated Cultural Compliance Officer.

Priscilla has the challenge of being the officer appointed to monitor the remediation actions ordered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, following the exposure of unethical sales practices to First Nations customers at five Telstra-licensed stores.

One might expect Priscilla to be weighed down by policy regulations and potential conflicts – but in fact, she’s nothing of the sort. Amid a heavy schedule of compliance monitoring, Board reports and stakeholder meetings, this proud Kalkadoon/Djaku-nde woman is finding time for a growing number of “community check-ins” – visits to the farthest-flung communities, where good mobile signals are a prized possession. She says nothing gives her greater pleasure.

“I’ve been out with the pink bus in Far North Queensland, and I’m hoping to go on many more trips with the Regional Australia teams,” says Priscilla, referring to the striking Telstra van that since late 2019 has visited more than 140 remote communities, advising customers, addressing faults, and cancelling ‘bad debts’.

“Our goal is to make sure every customer understands what they’ve paid for and is able to get in touch with us after we leave,” says Priscilla. “No matter where we go, everyone’s so welcoming and so grateful to have someone to ask questions to. When we went to Bamaga recently, I understood the local language, which made the customers much more relaxed to come and have a yarn and ask us questions directly.”

A dedicated hotline

In March last year, Telstra set up its First Nations Connect Hotline – a contact centre in Darwin staffed exclusively by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team members. By mid-2022, there will be 16 agents at the centre.

Thecla Brogan, the team leader, says her first year in the job has been hard work but incredibly rewarding. “We’ve had significant challenges with COVID, but most of our agents have stepped up to the challenge,” she says. “We’re targeting remote communities, so there’s a wide range of enquiries – billing, NBN connections, a lot of pre-paid recharges… People need to be educated about their bills, because in the past they haven’t been properly told how they work. It’s all about understanding – and trust.”

Every year, Telstra receives an estimated 25,000 calls from First Nations communities, relating to everything from billing and faults, to enquiries about specific products and services. According to Thecla, having a friendly voice on the end of the line – a voice that understands you – is critical.

“Over the phone, people can immediately hear that we’re Aboriginal and they get real comfort from that. They are mostly calls in Broken English, we can help to make complex subjects simpler and easier to understand. With faults and connectivity issues, we’ll also help customers make reports to the faults team.”

As well as proactive reporting, the check-in services are ramping up their visits – aiming to reach another 200 communities over the next financial year. The pink van is a lesson in consistency. Nearly three years on, it’s still run by Telstra’s NT area manager, Nic Danks, who goes on 90% of the tours himself.

“Since our first trip to Hermannsburg, we’ve covered more than 35,000 kilometres, from the APY Lands to the top of Far North Queensland, the Kimberley and all across the NT,” says Nic. “This year, for the first time, we’ll be visiting Kalgoorlie and central WA.”

Support where it counts

The tours are not sales trips, but a chance to reach out and support Telstra’s most remote customers – 11,200 of them to date. “We make sure they don’t have any bad debts (and remove them if they do), and they’re on the most appropriate plans. We also make sure they can use the Telstra app and have contacts for the First Nations Hotline, so they can get in touch if they need to.” To break the ice, everyone who visits the van gets a $50 pre-paid credit applied to their mobile, and often something to eat.

“We’ve cooked 38 kilos of sausages in the past four days,” laughs Nic. In towns where there are reports of poor connectivity, the team will also check the local tower and signals and report any faults. “It’s not the Telstra circus coming to town,” says Nic. “It’s about looking after people as well as we can, and providing the greatest value we can in a limited time.”

Ultimately, says Priscilla West, it’s about sensitivity – to the local people, their customs, their land. “Whether it’s a local check-in or a poster promotion, we have to make sure that everything’s appropriate – the language, the content, the imagery – not just for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience, but for each individual group where that marketing will be used.

“We have to make sure we’re speaking to the right people, asking the right questions, making sure we really understand the local issues – so we can pass people’s feedback directly to the right managers, and make sure it’s really being used to improve the customer experience. We can only advocate for our mob if we really listen to them.”

More information

The Telstra First Nations Connect Hotline is based at our Darwin offices and operates from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. You can reach them by telephone on 1800 444 403.

Find out more about our First Nations programs here.

Regional | Sustainability |

The communities in Australia where digital inclusion is going backwards

By Telstra First Nations Team May 1, 2022

Remote First Nations communities have some of the worst digital access and affordability rates in Australia. They’re also places where reliable communications and accurate information can mean the difference between life and death.

Image: The Wilcannia research team, from left to right: REDI.E co-researchers Anthony Wiltshire and Shaylin Whyman, REDI.E team leader Brendon Adams, Dr Daniel Featherstone, Dr Lyndon Ormond-Parker and Dr Indigo Holcombe-James.

When COVID-19 arrived in the remote New South Wales town of Wilcannia in August last year, it threw the communications challenges facing this isolated, largely Aboriginal community of 750 people, into stark relief.

Within a few weeks of being declared a public health emergency, dozens of health workers, police and emergency services personnel poured into Wilcannia – bringing with them a host of temporary cell towers and mobile base stations to connect the crisis to the outside world.

In September, Telstra installed a new 4G mobile small cell, which has improved connectivity near the local hospital. However, without other telecommunication providers in the area and broadband choice limited to nbn™ Satellite, the community has few options for digital connectivity.

“In fact, the situation here is actually worse than it was before the pandemic,” says social researcher Dr Featherstone, “because like most of Australia, more people are trying to work and study from home, access online services, and stream entertainment – and the local mobile network simply can’t support the digital demand.”

A Senior Research Fellow at RMIT, Dr Featherstone leads a team undertaking a pioneering study on the use of communications and media services in remote First Nations communities across Australia. A partnership between Telstra and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, the ‘Mapping the Digital Gap’ project aims to plug a vital gap in the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII), which has been measuring online access, affordability, and ‘digital ability’ across Australia since 2016.

Between 2022 and 2024, the team will travel from the Kimberley and the deserts of Central Australia to Cape York and the Torres Strait, partnering with First Nations organisations and community co-researchers to survey and interview hundreds of residents and agencies in 12 remote communities each year. The project is the largest survey of its kind ever undertaken, designed to inform public policy, corporate support, and community action at a time when communications in remote communities have never been so important – nor so inequitable.

When more than mobile technology is needed

Mapping the Digital Gap is a missing piece of critical research that will back decades of research, trials and programs to improve digital literacy and digital inclusion for Australia’s remote communities. Dr Featherstone in collaboration with Telstra and universities has been pushing for greater internet coverage and accessible computer facilities in First Nations communities for more than 20 years.

“The reality is that mobile technology is not the only solution to support the online learning, workplace skills and e-commerce so desperately needed in remote communities,” says Dr Featherstone. “With the rapid digital transformation to online service delivery and physical services being withdrawn, programs are needed to ensure digital access and skills development to use these services – but these programs need resourcing.”

Dr Featherstone has a strong record in getting things done in remote communities, having been involved in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands Telecommunications Project in the 2000s, setting up the inDigiMOB mentoring program (a partnership of Telstra with First Nations Media Australia), and the establishment of the Broadband for the Bush Alliance and the annual Indigenous Focus Day. “The bottom line is that public-private partnerships should share the responsibility and the costs for this work,” says Dr Featherstone.

Growing digital gaps

According to Dr Featherstone, the digital gap in remote communities has actually become worse in recent years. “Over the past four years, despite all the efforts made, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has continued to grow when it comes to digital access and affordability,” says Dr Featherstone, a prominent advocate of Target 17 of Closing the Gap – which sets out that, by 2026, Australia’s First Peoples will have equal levels of digital inclusion.

Indeed, the ADII reports show the ‘digital gap’ facing our First Nations people grew from 5.8 points in 2018 to 7.9 points in 2020. While the 2021 ADII report did not have sufficient First Nations respondents to accurately quantify the gap, all indicators suggest it has increased even further during COVID-19.

Mapping the Digital Gap is setting out to change this, by canvassing remote residents in local language and in detail about their communications practices and challenges, and ‘mapping’ their responses in a series of site-specific reports – designed to help local organisations develop digital inclusion plans, identify resource needs, and find potential partners.

“Digital inclusion is supposed to be part of Closing the Gap, and this is our evidence that we need to show to the government that we need the same type of service in Wilcannia that we get in Dubbo, Sydney or Melbourne,” says Brendon Adams, Site Manager of the Regional Enterprise Development Institute, or REDI.E, which partnered with Dr Featherstone’s team in Wilcannia. “Right now, we’re working really hard to compile this evidence together.”

Towards digital equality

For Mr Adams and his community, the data could literally mean the difference between life and death. Network outages and poor coverage can have serious implications on people’s health and safety, especially when communities rely so heavily on support from health and emergency services outside their community. “In our community, like other remote communities, it’s essential that we voice to the rest of Australia the issues that we face on a daily basis,” he says. “Having reliable communications impacts on our education, our employment, and our daily lives through our social and emotional wellbeing. This is about aiming for equal human rights for our community, by having the same mobile and internet services as other parts of Australia.”

Daniel Featherstone says that with more users and higher bandwidth applications placing increased pressure on mobile networks in remote towns and communities, there will be a host of new needs. “In Wilcannia, ADSL is no longer available and there is very little uptake of the only NBN option of a satellite service. Almost everyone here uses pre-paid mobile, which costs $3-4 per gigabyte compared to less than $1 for most post-paid services. And the overreliance on mobiles creates significant barriers to developing the digital skills needed for work and learning. Other solutions need to be considered.”

In a place of low literacy rates, poor digital literacy presents its own challenges, with people generally eschewing email, word processing, and other work-based and learning applications in favour of mobile apps and communications. “People in remote communities really value communications, but of course they prefer the flexibility of mobiles,” says Dr Featherstone. “There’s a clear need for more community-access computers and free public wi-fi, not to mention general digital skills and cyber-safety training.”

The Digital Inclusion Plans being developed with each community will outline their main issues and challenges to digital inclusion, what infrastructure exists, and local recommendations to the most pressing needs. “Strategies may include establishing public wi-fi networks, accessing computers, developing practical training resources, or seeking improved infrastructure,” says Dr Featherstone.

“After 20 years of engaging with government and industry in this space, I’m confident this project will finally provide the much-needed evidence required to guide practical interventions to improve the woeful levels of digital inclusion in many remote communities.”

For more information about the Australian Digital Inclusion Index and Mapping the Digital Gap, please visit the Mapping The Digital Gap project.