ECUM SECUM — Less than one month after she launched it, one woman’s petition for better cell service along the Eastern Shore has attracted more than 1,000 signatures, and an outpouring of citizen support from Sheet Harbour to Sherbrooke.
Now, Sue Amberg — a self-employed professional, who lives in Ecum Secum — expects to deliver “a whole lot” of imploring letters this week; both to Bell Mobility officials and Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston, hoping that the sheer sight of them will prompt action.
“I want them to see the handwritten signatures from real people, who are really affected,” she told The Journal in an interview last week. “See what people are going through... the fears they have of not having cell service, especially when they’re on the road.”
The campaign, which she began on Aug. 10 through social media, has touched a nerve in rural Nova Scotia, especially the Eastern Shore, where stories about dropped calls, extensive ‘dead zones’ and people queuing to use their phones at rare roadside ‘live zones,’ have lately become the stuff of legend.
In a statement on Aug. 25, provincial Liberal leader Zach Churchill called on the provincial government to release a long-awaited report “to improve cell service across the province [which] has been in the hands of the Houston government since last year. Each day this report continues to be withheld increases the risks to Nova Scotians who require access to urgent communication, no matter where they are in the province.”
According to Amberg, “In my case, I had an accident on Highway 224 a few months ago. While I was in the ditch, somebody tried calling for assistance, but he couldn’t get a hold of anybody; there was no cell service. He had to get me up on to the road, and then we had to drive into Sheet Harbour to make our calls as necessary. But, what if someone was really badly hurt? That’s the point.”
The petition — which is posted to change.org and registers just more than 1,000 signatures — asks that “Bell provide stable cell service along the entire Eastern shore [and that] cell towers be placed in appropriate positions... Firefighters and paramedics rely heavily on cell service... In case of illness, there is no way to call for an ambulance when there is no power... If there is a fire or flood in our area, there will be no cell phone alert to advise us of imminent danger... When a hurricane hits our area, there is usually no power and the internet goes down at the same time — the result being that there is no way to communicate with the outside world. [Meanwhile], many residents pay for a cell service, despite the fact that there is no tower close to our homes.”
Under the circumstances, it says, “[The] Government of Nova Scotia may be asked to provide a grant to assist in the erection of a cell tower, should Bell [Aliant] claim that they cannot justify the cost... We ask that the federal government provide funding to help provide a stable cell service in Nova Scotia.”
Amberg said she’s been in touch with Bell but doesn’t hold out much hope for better service this year. “That’s what I’ve been told...you know, ‘Talk to us in 2024.’ What I’ve been learning is that the government powers that be have been talking to Bell and they’ve been toing and froing [on this] for a while. It’s not coherent as to what the procedure [is]... All I’ve done is contact whoever is the highest person I can reach. So, I will be going directly to Bell [with the petition] and then reporting back to government officials what [Bell] tells me.”
In an email, Bell Mobility spokesperson Katie Hatfield told The Journal that the telecommunications company maintains two cellular towers between Sheet Harbour and Sherbrooke, adding: “As the population and mobile network usage grows, additional tower capacity (extra equipment) or new towers are required to extend service. [Meanwhile], we are continually optimizing our network to achieve the best service with the existing infrastructure. Partnerships are also helping to extend our network to areas where it’s a challenge for private investment alone.”
Those explanations, however, fail to comfort some local officials who say they’ve been pushing for better cell service in the area for years.
“It is something I have advocated for with service providers and all levels of government since before my time on municipal council,” said Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s District 2 (Ecum Secum and Area) Councillor Charlene Zinck. “The entire area of my district covers has little to no cell service. Just last week, areas in my district had a four-day landline interruption. Had there been an emergency, there would have been no way to communicate to 911. This is an issue in much of rural Nova Scotia. Service providers need to step up.”
She added: “I think it is great to see people get involved and make their voices heard.... In this day and age, cellular service shouldn’t be an issue.”