COVIDSafe had a mixed reception due to confusion around how it works on iOS and concerns around it affecting battery life. But one of the lesser highlighted issues is how many rural Australians aren’t able to register for the app at all.
In order to register for COVIDSafe, users need to be sent an SMS verification. This two-factor authentication (2FA) is for security purposes and in general is a good feature of the app.
But this becomes problematic if you live in an area with patchy or no mobile service. And this is the issue that many rural Australians are now facing. If you can’t get the SMS, you can’t use COVIDSafe.
For rural Aussies — or even just those who live in a mobile black spot — who are on plans with Vodafone and Optus, excluding prepaid, this isn’t a problem. With these providers, they’re able to still receive the verification text because these telcos offer SMS Over WiFi.
Unfortunately, users who are with Telstra or some Mobile virtual Network Operator (MVNO) resellers don’t have this option.
What Is SMS Over WiFi?
SMS over WiFi means that an SMS is sent over an internet connection rather than a cellular one. It allows people to still receive text messages sent to their phones even if they don’t have mobile network coverage. So long as they’re connected to WiFi, they’ll still get their texts.
Apple’s iMessage service is a good example of this – it uses WiFi or mobile data to send messages between phones, instead of a cellular network.
Why SMS Over WiFi Matters In 2020
Telstra has the most robust network coverage in the country, which generally makes the telco a good choice for people living in non-metropolitan and suburban areas.
But a lot of rural Australians still don’t get network coverage in their home or surrounding area and therefore have to rely on the internet instead. Fortunately for regional Australia, internet coverage has become less of a problem thanks to satellite services such as Sky Muster, which offers unmetered email, web browsing and in some cases, software updates.
Back in March, NBN Co even made 70 per cent of all Sky Muster traffic completely unmetered.
But as more apps and services, such as COVIDSafe, request SMS 2FA — the need for cellular texts has become more relevant again. So Telstra being unable to provide that service over WiFi has become an increasing problem.
“If they want people to download the app then they need to be aware that there are Australians that don’t have mobile coverage,” said Kristy Sparrow from Better Internet For Rural, Regional & Remote Australia (BIRRR) in a phone call with Gizmodo Australia.
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Awareness of the issue and why it matters is an ongoing battle for rural Australians.
“Australians in regional areas can register on the app over the mobile network the next time they are in a coverage area, such as when in town to buy groceries or supplies,” said a spokesperson for Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
This generalised advice may be okay for some people, but for other rural Australians town is hours away. In some cases, you might not go into a township regularly got supplies.
“If you live eight hours outside of Katherine you’re probably getting groceries delivered by a mail truck or plane,” Sparrow said.
The good news is that Telstra is working on a 2FA COVIDSafe fix for its customers ” and the DTA has had to get involved.
“Telstra customers in areas that do not have mobile coverage are unable to send or receive SMS over WiFi. We have been working to introduce this capability into the network and will now accelerate the work required. We are also working closely with the DTA on alternative methods for the COVIDSafe app to send an authentication code,” said a Telstra spokesperson in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
This was further confirmed by the Australian government.
“The government is aware that Telstra handsets presently do not support SMS over wi-fi, meaning that those in areas with poor mobile coverage may experience challenges in completing the process to download and register the COVIDSafe App (as the process involves receiving a code via SMS),” said a spokesperson for the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
“Minister Fletcher has held constructive discussions with Telstra, and Telstra has agreed to work with the Commonwealth Government to determine if there are alternative approaches to support the COVIDSafe registration process when a Telstra customer is connecting via wi-fi. That work is underway and as progress is made Telstra and the Government expect to have more to say.”
Telstra did not provide a timeline for when we could expect this to be rolled out.
The Bigger Picture
But even if a solution for the COVIDSafe SMS issue is found, that’s not the end of the issue for rural Australians. The COVIDSafe app was just one symptom in a much larger problem.
Many banking apps and MyGov services also utilise SMS verification ” while some banks and government services offer workarounds, it’s still not the norm.
This lack of SMS For WiFi can also go from being inconvenient to dangerous, such as during emergencies like the fires and floods earlier this year.
“We know that in the floods in central Queensland that people were evacuating two days after they were supposed to [because] they were getting alerts then. The same thing happened in the fires, because you can get an iMessage but not SMS,” Sparrow said.
Hopefully the issues with COVIDSafe SMS will enable telcos and the government to prioritise introducing these services in the near future.