WHITEHEAD — In the age of fibre optics, landline phone service to some communities southwest of Canso has become so unreliable that at least one resident says she worries about venturing on her property for fear of being disconnected to the outside world.
“I have a horse, but I don’t go riding anymore,” said Moni Duersch, a visual artist who lives in Whitehead. “If something happens to me in the yard, I can’t connect. I have no other way of reaching anyone because the cell service here is ridiculous... So, if I fall off my horse, and I’m somewhere in the middle of nowhere, I’m dead. It’s very disconcerting.”
Fellow resident Sandra Reeves-Winter, who’s also a member of the Three Top Volunteer Fire Department on Whitehead Road, concurred. What’s more, she said, the problem with landlines in the area has been getting worse.
Speaking to The Journal on Sept. 20 from her cell, which, she said, “only works with a booster, and is also terrible,” Reeves-Winter reported: “Unfortunately, the issue has become more common. Over the past year, my landline has gone out a few times, more than a couple. And, when it goes out, it’s out for four or five days. It doesn’t come back quickly. My neighbour’s is still really bad. She can’t even hear... It’s a safety threat. You’re kind of always waiting for the unexpected, which is not a great place to be. And, if people don’t have [landline] access to 911, it can be a serious problem.”
The most recent outage, she said, occurred just before hurricane Leo swept through Nova Scotia as a post-tropical storm. “A week before that, we didn’t have landline service [at my home] for five days and four nights. There was really no reason other than it rained.”
Added Duersch, from her temporarily working landline, on Sept. 20: “Before the hurricane, it was out, and for no good reason – for three or four days – and then, right after that, we had power, but, again, no phone... This is important to me. I have all kinds of health issues. I need to be able to reach a doctor in case something happens.”
Although official estimates peg the population of Whitehead at 50 to 120, at any given time, Reeves-Winter insisted the area is home to “enough people that this should be considered [important], particularly [when] so many elderly people have landlines.”
Nevertheless, she said, appeals to Bell Aliant have typically fallen on deaf ears. “Bell has quite the history of call-ins from the Whitehead area. The infrastructure is so old, and they certainly don’t want to invest any money in it. So, they put band aids on from time to time.”
She added: “When you do call them [on a cell], when there are no landlines – as we have and the neighbours have several times – it goes directly to an answering machine or a call [centre] … And, obviously, they have no idea. They’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re going to send a technician.’ And, you know that’s not gonna happen... All of this just builds frustration and anxiety for people who depend on this [service].”
According to Bell Aliant’ s 2022 Annual Report, the company eexpanded its pure fibre network to an 854,000 homes and businesses in Canada last year, adding: “We will continue expanding our fibre footprint to less-densely populated areas and communities, with a target of expanding 650,000 additional fibre connections by the end of 2023.” In Nova Scotia, it reported, it’s working with “the Internet for Nova Scotia program [through the provincial government’s Build Nova Scotia]... to reach rural and smaller communities that can’t be funded by private investment alone.”
In an email to The Journal last week, Bell Aliant spokesperson Katie Hatfield said the most recent “telephone service issue” in Whitehead was due to “equipment damage, which has since been repaired.” Longer term, she noted, “Thanks to Bell’s partnership with Build Nova Scotia to expand its fibre network to 80,000 hard-to-reach homes and businesses across the province, [the Whitehead] area will be upgraded with fibre technology. We are targeting to have the work completed [there] before the end of the year.”
All of which may or may not be music to residential ears in Whitehead. Said Reeves-Winter: “My landline is still very staticky. It’s really difficult to have a conversation on it. Really, this should be an essential service to anybody who actually has a phone.”