The federal government has admitted it had received reports that desperate people were breaking into houses looking for food, as telecommunications outages left Aboriginal people living on islands off the Northern Territory coast without essential supplies for almost three days last week.
The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) told a Senate committee Friday that it was “still getting the picture” of what happened on Groote Eylandt, but it had received reports of some unrest at not being able to access food”.
“We became aware not long after it happened,” NIAAA’s Sam Jeffries said. “All communications were down and we were unsure how long they would be out for. We were getting verbal reports that there was no access to money, or to be able to buy food, some unrest at not being able to access food.
“But we were working with telecommunications mob as best as we could and also with NT police.
“We did hear reports that there were some break and enters into houses,” Jeffries told Greens senator Rachel Siewert. “We had reports of people sharing food. But these were just verbal reports we were receiving on a daily basis.”
When Siewert asked if NIAA had formally investigated, NIAA secretary Ray Griggs said: “We are still getting the picture.”
Telstra has confirmed that the outages were more widespread than originally reported, fuelling concerns about the network’s ability to support contact with remote communities as fears over coronavirus spread.
Telstra confirmed the NT mainland communities of Borroloola and Numbulwar were affected by the same outage, while the Cape York community of Kowanyama was also without telecommunications for three days.
Aboriginal people in the Groote archipelago said they were left “sick, angry, hungry and forgotten” with no support from emergency services when phones went down for three days. Residents also had no internet access, Eftpos or access to cash after all telecommunications were lost between Wednesday and Friday.
“A remote Aboriginal person’s access to banking, food, fuel, services is their cards and mobile,” an Angurugu woman from Groote Eylandt said. “Basic card, Medicare card, bankcard. There is no cash carried in wallets.
“After two days the supermarket became the focus of attention as it was difficult for people to understand why food is on the inside and hungry people are on the outside.”
Telstra said storms and flooding meant that technicians could not access the area to conduct repairs, and apologised to communities and residents.
A spokesperson from the NT Department of the Chief Minister said telecommunications, welfare payments and the Basics Card are “the responsibility of the Australian Government.”
“In a complex and widespread telecommunications network, outages will occur from time to time,” the spokesperson said. “In remote communities the impact is often more pronounced due to lack of alternative network pathways and the longer times for telecommunications providers to attend and restore services compared to urban centres.”
The NT government said most community stores in east Arnhem Land have back up satellite communication.
But one Groote Eylandt resident told Guardian Australia: “The idea that backup systems were in place and communications maintained is laughable.” .
Health workers maintained contact with patients by going door-to-door “but otherwise communication was extremely minimal”, the resident said, on condition of anonymity.
Access to satellite phone reception was intermittent due to cloud cover and, because they don’t work inside buildings, sat phones could be used to make but not receive calls.
In Queensland, the Cape York community of Kowanyama was also without phone and internet for three days between 23 and 26 February.
“People here are living week to week and were running low on the power and food,” a resident said. “Some people were out of both by the Monday and the only way to purchase anything was through cash, which no one had.
“People were sitting outside the shop distraught as they were hungry and had no power. Local staff at the school went home because they were hungry.
“By Tuesday there was a lot of fighting in the streets as tensions rose. We all thought, including the police, that if it continued we may have riots. There were rumours but no real confirmation about when we would be reconnected.
“The school went into lockdown when a student threatened to stab a staff member with a kitchen knife they found in the staffroom. We were stuck in our classrooms with no communication about what was happening and someone had to physically go to the police station to get help.”
Other remote Indigenous communities have reported telecommunications failures since the start of the year.
Galiwinku (Elcho Island) in the NT had two outages over Christmas, both lasting three days, and nine central Australian communities went without phone coverage for several days over January, prompting people to drive into Alice Springs to access money and food.
A Telstra spokesman said: “While Telstra’s network is generally very reliable, we can still experience issues occurring due to natural events such as floods and fires, vandalism or accidental damage that can result in a loss of service.
He said fixed landlines and the NBN “allow for more opportunities for uninterrupted communications in remote communities”.
“If remote residents have access to a wifi connection, they can still make and receive mobile calls using the wifi option available on many popular phones.
“We encourage remote businesses to also consider connecting to NBN Sky muster satellite service and ensuring their Eftpos machine is wifi-enabled.”
But the NT government spokesperson disputed this was a solution.
“Having access to satellite broadband is unlikely to provide the answer for financial transactions in outage scenarios, as services may not function over satellite or not have backup capability over satellite.”
NIAAA said it had discussions with it’s manager on Groote Eylandt and will “have discussions again early next week”. Sam Jeffries was unsure of the timeline for putting any contingency plans in place, but said it would be done “as quickly as possible”.
Independent territory MP Yingiya Mark Guyula said earlier this week it was not OK that people were going for several days without access to food and essential services such as power when the phone lines are down.
“There are concerns that people cannot contact emergency services if needed, and that nurses who are working remotely cannot access patient files,” Guyula said. “This creates serious health concerns.”