With winter coming and more traffic than ever on the fragile Inland Rd into Kaikoura, getting cellphone coverage could be the difference between life and death.
The narrow, windy road has become crucial for access in and out of Kaikoura following the earthquake, but most of the route is a mobile blackspot.
State Highway 1 south of Kaikoura is often subject to work and weather-related closures – it was still closed on Sunday after heavy rain brought down slips earlier in the week.
A group of farmers who live in the area and have been pushing for coverage say it has been an issue for years, but following the earthquake it has now become urgent.
READ MORE: * Kaikoura’s Inland Rd handed back to NZTA * ‘Relief’ in Kaikoura as inland road opens to the public * Brief window before Kaikoura isolated again as inland road reopens temporarily * Crews race to re-open Kaikoura’s crucial Inland Rd
Marianne Taylor, who lived on a farm near the Kaikoura end of the road, said when there was a crash, those involved or passersby had to get to the nearest landline for help.
“Frequently the locals are called out to rescue travellers, often tourists, who have run off the road into a ditch or such,” she said.
If they were lucky, people involved in a crash could walk out themselves, but for more serious incidents they had to rely on being seen by passersby to get to the nearest phone.
Taylor said this could take time – residents might not be home, and there was a 14-kilometre stretch that was uninhabited after people moved out of their homes following earthquake damage.
For weeks after the earthquake, many residents had no way of contacting emergency services, their families, or calling in supplies to keep their farms up and running, Taylor said.
She, along with two other Inland Rd residents, Sue Turnbull and Bin Kennedy, had been tirelessly advocating for coverage, emailing politicians and collecting letters of support.
The group had received about 100 letters from businesses, residents and emergency service groups, including St John, police, and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
They had also compiled a petition with signatures from about 120 Mt Lyford residents, which was sent to Kaikoura MP Stuart Smith advocating for increased cellphone coverage.
“With winter fast approaching the urgency compounds by the day for users and residents of this road to have vital communication,” Taylor said.
Westpac Rescue Helicopter general manager Simon Duncan agreed not having cellphone coverage could be the difference between life and death in a serious crash.
It made it more difficult for emergency services to find an accident, and to gauge the right level of response, he said.
With more people using the road, Duncan said it was important cellphone coverage was provided.
Kaikoura volunteer fire chief Ian Walker said having someone on the scene with a cellphone was helpful for emergency services to get first-hand information.
“It’s very important we get cellphone coverage out there for the protection of the community, we can’t go back to previous technology, it’s 2017, we should have it.”
Kaikoura MP Stuart Smith said he met with senior Spark executives on Wednesday where he showed them correspondence from the community backing the need for coverage.
This included a proposal to put a cell tower on Dog Hill, which Smith said would provide coverage to a large section of the road. The response from Spark was heartening, he said.
Smith said the Government would be announcing new funding for mobile blackspots soon. Companies had already started applying for funding to provide coverage in certain areas.
The Kaikoura MP would not say if Spark had applied for funding for the Inland Rd, but did say coverage was necessary, especially given the increased traffic.
“Also, if there’s a tower put on Dog Hill a lot of the community that would not have access to broadband would be serviced,” Smith said.
Kaikoura Mayor Winston Gray said he understood the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery alliance was looking at ways to improve coverage on the road.