Sunday, April 21, 2024

Local leaders urge swift action on cell service gaps

Poor service seen as growing ‘health and safety’ issue

  • October 11 2023
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter    

GUYSBOROUGH — Following a widely publicized report last month showing that Guysborough County receives the worst cellular phone service in Nova Scotia, municipal authorities here are urging service providers and the province to address the problem as a “health and safety” emergency, threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of local citizens.

“The lack of stable, reliable cell service presents a grave public safety issue,” said Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s Deputy Warden James Fuller, who is also a volunteer firefighter, in an email to The Journal last week, noting that “residents as well motorists traveling within dead zones are unable to call for assistance in the event of an accident or medical emergency.”

What’s more, he said, “Due to the aging public radio/dispatch network, many fire departments need to use a cellular-based notification system as backup, and it’s not uncommon that these messages are not received due to inadequate service coverage.”

Added St. Mary’s Warden Greg Wier in a separate email: “We would be strong supporters of initiatives that could accelerate the building of local cell phone coverage.”

Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) Warden Vernon Pitts said the problem for many constituents of his area has become so serious that, “Our council [routinely] hears from staff and residents to the tune of, ‘We used to have service here, but now there is none’ or ‘I have to get to a [particular] area before I can make a call.’ Hopefully, it’s not a 911 call they have to make. We are currently [lobbying] service providers – specifically Bell – and senior levels of government.”

MODG Councillor Paul Long said the problem may actually be getting worse. “Many constituents have complained about the loss of coverage in areas where it had previously been available. Given our large distances from healthcare centres, the need for improved cell coverage is sometimes a matter of life and death. As [we push] for improved coverage, we are encouraging others to do the same.”

Stifling rural economic development

Apart from the health and safety issue, municipal authorities and residents said the problem also poses a clear and present danger to the county’s long-term social and economic development.

“Clearly,” Pitts said, “this all hurts prospective businesses, tourists, fishers and many more.” Added Long: “If we are to encourage people to move to our beautiful community, cell and Internet coverage are certainly part of the package that people are looking at, when choosing a safe and vibrant place to live.”

Wier noted that St. Mary’s – with its historic, living museum at Sherbrooke Village, among other attractions – is “an amazing place with a lot to offer. [But] more cell coverage and linkage of continuous services in all areas would greatly assist in helping us grow and develop.”

Without this “essential service, limited or reversed growth is where we will be,” said Goldboro resident and former Sherbrooke Village Historical Development Society Chair Neil Black. “We need a champion [in government] to demand action to save souls and improve quality of life in this region [of Nova Scotia].”

Scary reality

Guysborough County residents from Ecum Secum to Canso are no stranger to poor cell service. But, as public services increasingly gravitate towards online platforms, they argue that consistent, reliable mobile communications is becoming less of a luxury and more of a lifeline.

Sue Amberg of Ecum Secum, for example, said she was all but stranded roadside earlier this year. “I’d had an accident on Highway 224 and, while I was in the ditch, somebody tried calling for assistance,” she told The Journal in August. “But he couldn’t get through to anybody. 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?”

Whitehead resident Susan Reeves-Winter told The Journal last month that she’s frequently forced to depend on her landline – itself, unreliable – to connect because her cell phone “often only works with a booster, and is also terrible.” Her neighbour Moni Duersch described “sometimes having to climb on the roof” to get a signal, “which is ridiculous.”

For the first time, perhaps, hard data now backs up the anecdotal evidence.

More than a third of county without cell coverage

According to the Cell Gap Analysis report, commissioned by Build Nova Scotia more than a year ago (a copy of which was obtained by The Journal following its initial release on Sept. 28 through a freedom of information request by The Globe and Mail) – of the more than 21,000 households that live in cellular “dead zones” in the province, 2,500 reside in Guysborough County, which has a population of roughly 7,300.

For the county, this translates into a “no coverage” rate of 35 per cent – the highest, by far, in the province. The report, by UK-based digital technology consultant FarrPoint, states that the next nearest are Inverness and Richmond counties (17 per cent each), followed by Annapolis County (13 per cent) and Cumberland and Victoria counties (12 per cent).

In an email to The Journal, Bell Senior Manager, Corporate Communications, Tianna Gougen confirmed that the company’s wireless network – which maintains a handful of cellular stations along the Eastern Shore from Sheet Harbour to Canso – “is the largest in Nova Scotia, providing 98 per cent of the population and 76 per cent of the province’s geography with outdoor coverage. Bell has 574 cell towers in [the province], more infrastructure in the region than all of our competitors combined.”

At the same time, she said, when it comes to serving remote and sparsely populated areas, like Guysborough County, “expanding coverage to meet the growing population and usage demands needs to be a collaborative effort, and we look forward to working with the government in partnership to extend service in areas where it’s a challenge for private investment alone.”

Province says it’s working on the problem

That also seemed to be Nova Scotia Public Works Minister Kim Masland’s main message last week when she told reporters following a cabinet meeting in Halifax last week that, while “cell service is no longer a luxury... [expanding cell phone coverage in rural Nova Scotia] is part of a conversation that Build Nova Scotia is having with service providers...but it’s also a conversation that needs to be held with the federal government.”

For its part, Build Nova Scotia – the provincial Crown Corporation responsible for strategic economic infrastructure, including cellular technology and coverage – says that process is already underway. In an email to The Journal, Senior Communications Manager Kelly Rose stated, “The province is using this information [Cell Gap report] as it refines the analysis and starts to actively develop sustainable and reliable solutions, leveraging any federal initiatives planned or underway.”

Regarding Guysborough County, in particular, she said, “FarrPoint was hired to quantify the extent and the precise location of the dead zones across the province which includes Guysborough County. Build Nova Scotia is working with a consultant to confirm the findings of the report and... we’re currently working to propose a government strategy that would provide service to underrepresented areas, strengthening the network throughout the province.”

Meanwhile, she noted, “The province continues to deliver on its provincial Internet for Nova Scotia Initiative, which extends fibre networks further into communities. This helps to improve the business case for cell providers to provide improved cell service across the province, where possible. The strategy would include closing or reducing the underserved areas as quickly as possible, regardless of the technology used and this effort would be in conjunction with potential technology partners to address.”

Critics increasingly impatient

All of which, however, leaves some critics unmoved.

“I’ve driven through Guysborough and Cape Breton, through the Annapolis Valley, and there’s major gaps in our cell coverage in every single part of the province that impacts thousands of people in Nova Scotia,” Liberal Leader Zach Churchill told The Journal in an interview. “It’s really been shocking to see [this] provincial government not taking responsibility for this, when we’ve actually seen others like B.C. step up and fund infrastructure projects to increase cell coverage on remote highways.”

He added: “This is something that Minister Greg Morrow should really be advocating for because this impacts his constituents maybe more than anywhere else in the province. He’s also the Minister of Agriculture, and we’ve heard from farmers who don’t have cell coverage in their fields where they are dealing with heavy equipment. (The Journal reached out to Guysborough Tracadie MLA Morrow for comment, but its phone call and email to him were not returned by press time).

Said Pitts: “The powers that be can’t always just pick the low hanging fruit. It should not always be about a business case, especially when you are talking about telecommunications and the health and safety of individuals.” Added Long: “It seems like Bell doesn’t place a high priority on improving cell coverage in lightly populated areas. Just because an area has a small population shouldn’t mean it receives less service than larger areas.”

Determined to fight on

Indeed, municipal officials in Guysborough say time may be running out for a business-as-usual approach. MODG Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Shawn Andrews confirmed that meetings with Bell and with senior provincial officials to address solutions sooner, rather than later, is still the objective. “Cell coverage is always a topic of discussion and a concern at council and [it] continues to advocate for improved cell service at every opportunity,” he said.

“At the July 19, 2023, council meeting, for example, Bell representatives were in attendance to discuss these very concerns. More recently, letters were sent to the president of Bell to further exemplify the deficiency in the service. Committees of council, including our emergency management planning committee, also have cell coverage on their agendas.”

Ultimately, said Pitts, though providing cellular service is not a core function of municipal government, “We continue to request action from those having authority to make positive change. I am hopeful that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.”

So is Black and thousands of other Guysborough residents.

“We must have equal services, a level playing field, with the rest of the province,” he said. Anything less “is simply not right.”