Greg Thom
By: Greg Thom
“This island is cane toad free,” the Air North attendant announces to passengers matter-of-factly upon landing. “If you happen to see one, please contain it and wait for assistance. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Groote Eylandt!”

Located about 50 kilometres off the east coast of Arnhem Land in the Gulf of Carpentaria, we arrive at the dusty outback airport of Australia’s fourth largest island after an hour and half long flight from Darwin.

While none of the despised cane toads have managed to hitch a ride on the twin propeller E120 Brasilia aircraft, the passenger list does include Brian and Alex Bates.

Techs employed by our DP Remote Satellite Solutions, the brothers are here to help extend the nbn broadband access network to one of the most remote places in the country.

Laconic, keen motorcyclists and likely to be found dangling a fishing rod whenever they get the chance, the Darwin born and bred pair are also experienced hands at connecting some of the harshest parts of the continent.

Older brother Brian, 27, has worked across the breadth of far north Australia, from out-stations at Kununurra in WA to the Tiwi Islands.

A view out the window of our ride out of Darwin.

His CV includes a three week stint paired with a helicopter pilot based at Gove in Arnhem Land, flying into various locations across the Top End cut off by road during the wet season.

“It is challenging sometimes when you have to send stuff by barge to the islands and things don’t arrive,” he says of remote area work.

“But it’s just good getting out and about every day and not sitting in an office. You get to see a fair bit.”

While younger sibling Alex has six months of remote area work under his belt, this is his first trip to Groote Eylandt.

“I love working remotely, getting to see our beautiful country and just meeting all the people out in these communities. It’s just awesome,” he says.

“If we manage to knock off early there are always some great spots to have a fish after work, so that’s pretty good too!”

Brian Bates (left) and Alex Bates (right)

When it comes to world-class fishing, Groote Eylandt and the handful of smaller islands around it have it in spades, a factor combined with a rugged natural beauty that is helping drive a nascent tourism industry.

The island's economy and the fortunes of those who live there, or regularly fly in and out to work, is dominated however by the giant GEMCO-operated mine, which produces more than a quarter of the world’s supply of manganese.

Permission from the local Anindilyakawa Land Council (representing the lands traditional owners, the Warnindilyakwa people) is required to travel beyond the GEMCO town of Alyangula to other areas of the island, where internet access and mobile phone reception ranges from sporadic to non-existent.

While Brian and Alex have flown in from Darwin, as is often the case when operating in such remote locations, all their tools and equipment have been shipped in by barge a week ahead of their arrival.

A carefully pre-planned collection of items ranging from cables and conduit to modems, brackets, poles and satellite dishes are waiting dockside for us to collect.

A ship waits to take on Manganese mined from Groote Eylandt.

With a schedule of assurance calls, connection quotes and satellite dish installations ahead of them, the pair wastes no time heading down to fill up their hired vehicle and hit the road for the first job, providing a quote for a local resident and GEMCO employee keen to connect to Sky Muster™ satellite services.

On the way, Brian, who has just returned to work after three weeks' leave, confesses to missing his newborn daughter and first child, Madison.

“I love getting out and about for work, but it was tough to say goodbye. I didn’t want to leave her this morning,” he says, a broad smile splitting his heavily bearded face.

The next morning it’s a 6am start back at the airport to catch a charter plane flight to nearby Amakalyuwakba (Bickerton) Island.

We’re joined by Ericsson Service Delivery Manager Fixed Wireless and Satellite, Omar Hammoud, who has come along to lend his considerable knowledge and expertise.

Omar is no stranger to remote area installs, playing a key role on the ground in recently connecting residents on Christmas Island to the nbn access network.

In a stark example of how remote area installers need to think on their feet, we are soon faced with our first road block – the two 120cm satellite dishes won’t fit on the plane.

Even with half the seats of the Cessna removed, no amount of manoeuvring or lateral thinking is enough to solve the problem.

Serious consideration is given to ditching the plane altogether and instead catching a ferry to the island, a move that would add more than two hours and have a major impact on the day’s schedule.

Eventually a compromise is reached – the pilot flies our varied assortment of gear to the island airstrip before returning for his human cargo.

“This kind of thing happens quite a lot, especially in remote areas,” says Brian. “You really have to be ready for anything.”

Reinforcing the point, he tosses the pair’s ‘go-to’ bag containing essential items such as a first aid kit, water, muesli bars and a GPS tracking device into the plane.

“If you break down in the middle of nowhere, they can see where you are.”

The brief flight gives us a magnificent view of the dazzling azure sea and spectacular coastline dominated by Casuarina trees and Banyan figs below, before setting down on the dusty bush air strip on the edge of the main settlement of Milyakburra.

The community is home to about 80 residents and seemingly just as many dogs who lazily stroll along the dusty red streets, or give up the battle against the blazing sun altogether and sprawl under the shade of the numerous trees.

We’re met by Council Services Co-ordinator for Milyakburra Joel Durila, who displays an infectious enthusiasm for the potential benefits fast broadband can deliver to his people.

A view of the red streets of Milyakburra.

“Because we don’t have full mobile coverage on the island, having access to the nbn network will be a benefit to the community connecting to the outside world in doing their daily tasks like at Centrelink, communicating with family on other islands by email and (online) banking,” he says.

“So it is very, very important for people here to get connected to the network to make their life, I would say, more comfortable and as a way of getting their needs met.”

A short stroll down the street and we touch base with Teaching Principal at the local Milyakburra school, Sarah Rowe.

A veteran of teaching in remote indigenous communities, she has a problem with the modem at her home across the street and is keen to get it sorted so she can maintain contact with her parents in Brisbane, over 2,300 kilometres away.

“We do have good internet access at the school, but I would really like to have it here so I can do work at home after hours,” she says.

Sarah is among the handful of people in town with any kind of direct internet access.

Milyakburra has no mobile phone coverage – bar a couple of sweet spots those in the know can hook onto via a signal from across the water from Groote Eylandt.

“It does get frustrating,” Sarah says of the lack of phone coverage.

“There is a spot down by the airstrip where, if you stand in just the right place, you can get four bars on your phone.”

She’s grateful when her modem issue is resolved after much diagnostic detective work from Brian, Alex and Omar, and she is back online.

“Now I’ll be able to use Skype with my parents, rather than have to drive down to the airport to talk to them.”

Teaching Principal, Sarah Rowe.

In between selling hot pies and cold drinks, General Store manager Som Saha warmly welcomes the nbn crew who arrive to install satellite dishes on the roof of both his business and home across the road.

He is keen to enjoy the connectivity benefits upgrading to the Sky Muster™ service has to offer.

“This is a nice community, but the poor internet and having no (mobile) phone coverage is a real challenge.”

Almost on queue, the payphone mounted just outside the front door of his store rings.

As the only public phone in town, it’s is a vital lifeline allowing residents to reach the outside world and for friends and family to reach them.

Across the road at Som’s home, Alex is pinpointing the position of one of our satellites.

“One of the most challenging things with remote work is the trees,” he says. “They can block the satellite signal.

“Then there’s the weather in the wet season. It can be hard to work in the rain and the lightning and the logistics can be pretty challenging.

“Being Darwin born and bred, though, the sun's not a problem. You get used to the heat and the humidity.”

As Brian dons his safety harness and sweats it out on the roof under a cloudless, blinding sky, Alex heads inside to begin work on installing the modem.

“We work as a team. I’ll start with the dish on the roof, Alex gets things going inside and then we’ll meet in the middle.”

Over the road at the Lagulalya Aboriginal Corporation cultural centre, Rese Auld proudly shows off a bank of four shiny new internet-connected Apple Mac computers, paid for by the LAC as a community resource for local residents.

Just because most people in Milyakburra don’t have internet access in their own homes doesn’t mean they don’t want the same things as people across the nation that do, she says.

“A lot of them know what you can do online, like order things on eBay and they really love their music so want to download songs, but generally go to the airport to do it (on mobile phone),” says Rese.

“Eventually, my plan is to get a lot more of the locals up and trained so they can have an email address and they can start to do things like that here.

“They may need a little help to do some of these things, but they are keen.”

As the late afternoon sun sinks lower in the sky, the pressure is on to finish the job at Som’s house in time to make our charter flight back to Groote.

While outwardly calm, Brian admits to some niggling tension as he and Alex try to beat the heat and the clock, while straining to hear the incoming engine of our ride home.

“We are brothers, after all,” he says.

The next morning, it’s another early start and a 50 kilometre drive through heavily-wooded country to the community of Umbakumba on the western coast of Groote Eylandt.

An undulating population of about 400 make their home among the red desert streets.

We’re here to connect the local Centrelink office, which is also home to a range of other community services, to the nbn access network.

As Brian and Alex get to work, Community Development Program Site Manager Chris Henderson says although the community is alcohol free, unlike laid back Milyakburra, Umbakumba faces significant challenges from drugs, domestic violence and unemployment.

“This would be one of the most challenging communities on the island,” she says.

To help break the cycle of dependency, locals are encouraged and offered assistance to use the job seeker website on a computer set up in the office, along with perform tasks such as online banking.

“The whole idea is to encourage more people to come in and use it (internet), but it’s very slow,” says Chris.

She is delighted to find access is considerably faster once Brian and Alex have completed their installation and a smile breaks out on her face as she helps Katelynn, 22, navigate the site.

The community’s crèche is next on our list, its walls adorned with colourful indigenous-themed paintings that bring the building to life.

As Alex hauls the satellite dish onto the roof, Omar explains the reason why there are different sized dishes ranging from 80cm to a whopping 180cm and the importance of choosing the correct one in remote areas such as Arnhem Land.

“It’s all about the rainfall,” he says.

Intense rain can interfere with reception from the satellite.

The ‘roo tool’ is used to calculate the exact location of the premises in question and analyse average rainfall data to determine the size of the dish that is necessary.

“The larger the rain droplets, the bigger the dish that’s required,” says Omar.

Another job done, the brothers Bates are scheduled to continue working on Groot Eylandt for the rest of the week – helping to bridging the digital divide in remote Australia, one satellite dish at a time.

Greg Thom
By: Greg Thom

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