This week Telstra finally began rolling out SMS Over Wifi. This service, which Optus and Vodafone already offered to customers, allows SMS to be received by a user even when they don’t have mobile connectivity at the time. This is incredibly important for Australians in rural areas or those living in a mobile blackspot.
The prioritisation of the rollout has been linked to COVIDsafe, which requires a two-factor authentication text for installation. But this issue far predated the app. This lack of connectivity has been a frustration for years and in some cases could be considered dangerous.
SMS Over Wifi Issues
The need for SMS over Wifi is becoming more crucial, as security becomes increasingly important in our connected world and two-factor-authentication (2FA) is more often being utilised by apps and websites. While some services have multiple 2FA options, such as email and authenticator apps, in many cases it comes the form of an SMS verification, much like COVIDSafe.
Many banking apps and government services utilise this method, some of which have time sensitive pin codes, which is inconvenient for those without mobile connectivity.
We spoke to several Australians who live in rural areas and who are members of the Better Internet For Rural, Regional And Remote Australia (BIRRR) Facebook group. They extensively described the frustration and woes that accompanied this lack of digital inclusion. Every day, daily tasks that many of us take for granted simply aren’t possible for them without jumping through hoops.
Sometimes this means running down the driveway to get service. Other times, it may mean a trip into town, regardless of how far away it is. While circumstances differed between the rural Aussies we spoke to, there was a clear theme – this was no way to live in 2020.
“Our mobiles don’t work at all, and the copper cable telephone line has been decommissioned so have no choice but to use a VOIP service,” Sheralee Menz from South Australia told Gizmodo Australia in a thread we set up on the Facebook group. She said she lives 7km from a major regional centre that has full mobile coverage.
“The ATO insist on sending a security code via SMS for online services, it doesn’t work. The NAB send sends a security code for online banking, it doesn’t work. And that’s before we even start talking about emergency service messages, or the shit that we are left in if our internet goes down because without that we have nothing.
“Sometimes if we walk up behind the shearing shed you might get one bar of signal, but it’s never enough to hold a phone call. In a world that relies on technology the lack of mobile signal denies access to basic services that others take for granted, and without overreacting, has the potential to cost lives in emergency situations.”
Over the past week we have been hearing about issues that some rural Australians are having installing the COVIDSafe app. This is because Telstra, unlike Vodafone and Optus, didn't have SMS over Wifi, which prevented 2FA texts from being received by people who don't have mobile phone reception. Importantly, is an issue that also impacts other 2FA SMS as well as emergency texts. During our investigation into this Telstra started quietly rolling the feature out.Read more
Lack of SMS over Wifi meant some people weren’t able to register to log into their banking, others weren’t able to easily run their businesses from home. One person said it affected them knowing if work was cancelled.
“Just this morning I drove the 90kms to work to discover the shop was shut today due to plumbing issues and a text message had been sent to all employees. So a wasted 180km round trip that just being able to get a simple text message could have saved,” Sammy Martini, from rural NSW, told Gizmodo Australia.
Tahleah Styles spoke of issues with Telehealth appointments due to the lack of SMS over Wifi, combined with patchy internet issues.
“Text messages sometimes send and receive, other times they don’t. It has become a real issue when we have Telehealth appointments for my son or getting verifications for things like logging into the NDIS portal,” Styles said.
“We have missed messages from his therapists about therapy session changes, confirmations etc. This is also a problem that now the NDIS has a 10 day notice for changes/cancellations for therapy appointments — we will have to pay for his sessions even if we cannot use them due to lack of signal. It puts a strain on our already limited therapy funding.”
While some technology companies offer workarounds for rural Australians, they too can be inconvenient.
“Suncorp has provided me with a dongle, which generates a security number, which changes every 60 seconds. The dongle is small, and easily misplaced, and the numbers easy to misread and my eyesight is poor,” Lindsay MacDonald told Gizmodo Australia via email.
SMS Over Wifi Is Also Needed For Emergency Warnings
An alarming element related to the the lack of SMS Over Wifi in rural areas is the impact it had on some rural Australians during the bushfires earlier this year.
“As the 2020 fires headed towards our Creewah property the power went out then the landline went out, leaving us with no communication as there is no mobile reception. [We were] blind to Fires Near Me and Emergency SMS. As I evacuated out of the forested valley I received the ‘too late to leave’ SMS,” Melanie Rogers said via Facebook Messenger to Gizmodo Australia.
Vicki Stebbins from rural NSW had similar issues, as she lives in an area where all landlines and electricity went down.
“[There were] fires non-stop from September to January with no mobile, no landlines and those on solar, while having power, had to ask people on Facebook to dial 000 when fire was close,” Stebbins told Gizmodo Australia. “My phone to use [SMS over Wifi] should arrive soon and I hope not to be in a position where you have no idea where fire is.”
Telstra Rolls Out SMS Over Wifi
Fortunately, since our initial report on SMS Over Wifi, Telstra started rolling the service out. While it’s a shame this wasn’t done sooner, especially during the catastrophic fires earlier this year, those in mobile blackspots will hopefully be able to live easier digital lives from now on.
Of course, the introduction of the feature doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to fix all the technology issues in rural Australia. These text messages still rely on a solid Wifi connection, which isn’t always possible in some more remote areas. Although thanks to companies such as Skymuster, it’s also improving for some.
It also doesn’t change the fact that the mobile coverage in these areas needs to be dramatically improved across all networks.
While it took a government tracing app for this service to be introduced, at least it’s another step in the right direction for digital inclusion. Now more than ever connectivity should be treated as a utility, not a luxury. Because tech should be for everyone.