What it's like living without a cellphone signal

Last updated 15:28 14/09/2017

Elle Amon-Jones is frustrated that her cottages just 35 minutes from Auckland don't get cellphone reception and the internet crashes.

The Vineyard Cottages in the Waikoukou Valley are currently being used for filming, where the crew have no cellphone coverage and the internet keeps crashing.
David Lochore
Frank Lochore, 16, enjoys life without cellphone coverage. Here he is with his mother, Ginny, and brother, Jake, 18.
The tourism hotspot of Punakaiki is a mobile blackspot, frustrating Lorraine Ryder, resident and tavern owner.
Tourists arriving in picturesque Milford Sound can't get cellphone coverage.

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Elle Armon-Jones has 60 international film crew making a TV series on her property just 35 kilometres from Auckland. None of them can use their cellphones.

Her property and conference centre, Vineyard Cottages, in the Waikoukou Valley, near Kumeu, sits in a mobile blackspot. "They're walking around shaking their phones, staring at them," says Armon-Jones, who has to live with the daily frustration of not being able to use her phone and dealing with a slow internet.

"I've already had to reboot the router four times this morning. It's hopeless."

At a time when the world has never been more connected, five per cent of New Zealanders still live in areas where they can't get a cellphone signal, especially in rural and remote areas. Attitudes are mixed - some enjoy switching off, while others do everything from driving up a hill to find coverage, to yelling at their providers, especially those trying to run businesses or work from home.

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With a conference centre and cottages to accommodate 20 guests, Armon-Jones says "about 10 per cent" of those who arrive love switching off, especially Aucklanders who head out from the city. "But others find it incredibly frustrating. People come here and they want to stream Netflix but they can't get it."

Pointing the finger at her provider, 2 Degrees, she has to drive to the top of a hill to get a signal. She had one medical emergency, when a guest needed to call the ambulance and struck a dead line on their cellphone. "That was frightening," says Armon-Jones, who also tries to run two other businesses from her home.

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"Coverage should be stockstandard. I pay $100 a month for my phone line and internet and I'm told that I haven't used all my data. It's like, 'You're not kidding'. You expect to be able to use your phone and get internet. Everyone gets around that way."

The Government is spending $270 million to get ultra fast broadband to 99 per cent of Kiwis and cellphone coverage to 1000 kilometres of rural highways and 100 tourist hotspots by 2022. The good news is that cellphone coverage will be extended to places like her Armon-Jones', although it might be five years away.

In the small town of Porongahau, in central Hawkes Bay, Frank Lochore has grown up without cellphone coverage on a farm where he lives with his parents, Ginny and David. 

When he's home from boarding at Napier Boys High School, the 16-year-old can't text friends. He's on Snapchat, but only checks it a couple of times a day.

At a time when the average teen spends 8.9 hours a day on a phone, Frank's mother estimates he's only on his phone a few minutes at a time, just like his older brother, Jake, 18. "It's just normal to me not to have coverage. I just get out on the farm and do stuff," he says.

Ginny doesn't need to ban screens at the dinner table, and doesn't deal with the pinging of phones.

The family socialises "the old-fashioned way", using the landline or "driving up the driveway to see a neighbour". 

"The biggest pain is that people assume you can text back, and your phone starts beeping with texts when we get into town. In many ways, it's annoying but it's also nice," she says.

In Okains Bay, on the Banks Peninsula, about 120 residents live in a mobile blackspot. Bethells Beach, near Auckland, doesn't have cellphone reception, nor does Ngawi, a fishing settlement in the Wairarapa. Some beaches along North Island's East Coast don't get coverage, along with Milford Sound, which gets 550,000 visitors a year, and Cape Reinga.

In Punakaiki, the owner of the local tavern, Lorraine Ryder, is irate. Her Eftpos machine crashes when the patchy internet looses power. Visitors also resent having to pay for wifi - and it's slow. "It's archaic," she says.

By the cellphone tower on the top of the hill, lines of tourist vans park up to send a text or find a connection. "Punakaiki is supposed to be the jewel in the crown of the West Coast. People come from all over the world and they can't believe it when I say their phones won't work."

​Alison Kavanagh lives in Milford Sound without cellphone coverage - and she loves it. "People sit around and talk to each other, and there are always parties and bonfires to go through. You go into Te Anau and everyone is staring at their screens, but that doesn't happen here," she says.

Assistant manager at 200-bed Milford Lodge, the 31-year-old meets the odd guest who is a phone addict, "who wonders how they might cope".

"But you sit around and have dinner with people and chat to them. The guests here don't race off to their rooms to check Facebook. Our TV channels are a bit snowy too. So you have way more people interacting than you normally see."

"Most people, when they leave, say how nice it was. They've enjoyed switching off."

- Stuff


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