Poor cell service impacts 911 response

The Port aux Basques Fire Department during a roll out call in October 2020. Despite operating from a regional base, the lack of cell service in some of the areas they respond to remains a cause for concern. – Rosalyn Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

SOUTHWEST COAST – Apart from the poor cell service, Larry Peckford seems to have had a pleasant vacation during his stay in the Codroy Valley this summer. But his continued frustration with the lack of a cell signal prompted Peckford to lodge more than one complaint with his carrier when he returned home to Ontario in early October.

“Service coverage that is advertised by you as being LTE was totally unsatisfactory. Dropped calls were frequent and the additional data I purchased was almost useless because of poor cell signal. Residents of this area regularly are purchasing cell boosters to access service,” wrote Peckford to Virgin Mobile, stating that the trouble was not specific to any one area of the Codroy Valley.

Demanding recompense, Peckford wrote, “The towers serving the area appear inadequate and a review is needed to provide better cell service.”

He also sent similar letters to the CCTS (Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Service) and Wreckhouse Weekly (Letters to the Editor, Nov. 2). At the heart of these letters Peckford zeroed in on his chief concern – reaching emergency services.

“My need to call an ambulance for a family member was potentially compromised as I had to move about my property to get a signal,” wrote Peckford, who eventually got a response.

“Virgin categorized my complaint as a ‘trending ticket’, basically saying it is nothing they can resolve in the short term. I think they get it and, although they are associated with Bell, I doubt they have any control over cell towers and infrastructure. That’s where the problem is in my mind,” Peckford told the Wreckhouse Weekly last week.

Emergency responders across the region readily admit their response times have been compromised more than once because of the poor cell service.

RCMP Corporal Colin Helm plainly admits, “Cell phone service could use some work. Times are changing, and people are moving from landlines to cell phones and thats not always a benefit to first responders.”

Helm goes on to explain that there have been multiple occasions in the past where they have received a 911 call but due to location, the call gets dropped.

The Fire Department chiefs of three communities concur.

Chief Eddie Brenton of Rose Blanche said quite simply, “We don’t have any.”

He agrees that having cell service would be a big help, allowing people in the area to call emergency departments in the event of a roadside event for example.

Chief Brian Osmond of the Codroy Valley Fire Department cited one prime example of the consequences of no signals.

“We had a passerby who got to an accident, and he had a cell phone, but he had to leave the scene to get a cell signal.”

MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo-LaPoile) is well aware of the ongoing problems with cell service and not just within his own riding.

“Cell service has been a ten year project for me,” said Parsons on Tuesday, Nov. 17. “I drove across the province today. There’s a million dead spots. It’s an issue.”

Two years ago the department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation (TCII) reached out to communities along Route 470 about an opportunity to partner with Bell for a pilot project.

Parsons says that under the proposed project, Bell, the province and then the communities would each carry part of the cost for putting in new towers to increase service.

“Back in 2018, the former department (TCII) reached out and said there were three options for cell service, but when they broke it down there were two that were viable from a cost perspective and coverage,” says Parsons.

One option, called Simple Cell, involved putting in new poles that would reach the three communities of Rose Blanche-Harbour Le Cou, Burnt Islands and Isle aux Morts. That would have increased cell service coverage along most of Route 470, not just within the three towns.

“The total cost was estimated around 900 thousand. Out of that, Bell would have paid 450 thousand. Government would have paid 225 thousand, and the towns would have been asked to pay 225 thousand, which would have been 75 thousand per community,” stated Parsons.

That option was turned down, but Parsons revealed that there was a second option too. Under a plan called Small Cell, the coverage would have been restricted to prime locations by using fibre optic service instead. It would have augmented service at key points near different business and community centres.

“The problem with that was not everywhere would get service. It would expand for the entire vicinity geographically,” notes Parsons.

Costing estimates for the Small Cell program would have required the towns to still invest 25 per cent of the overall cost, roughly 15 thousand dollars, while Bell contributed 50 per cent and the province picked up the last 25 per cent.

“You’re looking at basically a 15 thousand dollar contribution for one tower,” said Parsons. “You could buy two towers at 30 thousand.”

All three communities rejected this option too, citing budgetary concerns.

Naturally one of the chief criticisms of asking towns to help pay for new infrastructure is that Bell is going to earn revenue by upgrading service, and should therefore be responsible for incurring the entirety of the cost.

“That’s not how this works,” observed Parsons. “It’s a private entity and they’re looking at return on investment.”

Town Response

The fact of the matter is that the population continues to decline along Route 470. Even before the financial hit brought on by the COVID-19 shutdowns, towns were struggling to balance their budgets just to provide basic essential services.

“Isle aux Morts has brown water, sewers still going into the coves, roads that have basically no pavement left,” wrote Mayor Nelson Lillington via e-mail. “Council had, and still has, much more pressing needs than spend 75 grand for better cell coverage.”

While Lillington agrees that more cell coverage would be nice, he noted that Isle aux Morts currently enjoys about 90 per cent coverage within the town.

Even partnering with the other two communities didn’t put the cost of upgrades within range, and towns are already incurring bank loans to maintain or upgrade aging and damaged infrastructure.

Other areas of the province have taken advantage of the Small Cell partnership with Bell.

“This very arrangement has been used in St. Anthony, in southern Labrador. It’s getting used in multiple rural areas around the province,” said Parsons. “The 25 per cent does not have to be by a municipality. It just has to be by someone else.”

Some communities have taken to fundraising to get the necessary investment money, and in one case a private entrepreneur partnered with Bell to expand service as part of a business initiative.

Prior to the pandemic, communities along Route 470, like most in the province, held annual events to attract tourists and help drive revenues, but they are typically earmarked to help offset future events.

“Ann Harvey Days and Come Home Years are run by committees and not the Town Council. These committees use the revenues from one event to pay for the next years event. Therefore, there was no thought of asking those committees to provide funding for cell service,” wrote Lillington.

Parsons, who is currently serving as the Minister of Industry, Innovation and Technology, believes he can still get the cell service upgraded if communities are willing to help with the installation expense.

“If you had to raise everybody’s tax by ten dollars you’d have it paid off in a reasonable period of time,” said Parsons. “This is what I would call a rational, logical municipal expenditure.”

Stadiums and walking trails don’t necessarily provide a return on investment either, notes Parsons, but they get funded because they have more than one perceived benefit.

Parsons observed that cell service also goes beyond quality of life to impacting safety, tourism and even the economy.

“As the minister responsible for this department for three months I would go out of my way, I would love nothing more than to be able to make this a reality for my district under this funding opportunity from my department,” said Parsons. “I think it’s a worthwhile cost. I think there’s a way to figure it out and I know that there’s a will.”

In the meantime, fixed wireless service is coming soon to Isle aux Morts and Burnt Islands. In the midst of a global pandemic, that will improve internet service, facilitating better business networking and remote learning, for example.

“That’s been committed to by Bell. I’ve been working on that for a while,” said Parsons. “This is hopefully going to get between 270 to 280 homes in Isle aux Morts and Burnt Islands better internet.”

Parsons hopes to see that service expand too, but the topography is a bit trickier closer to Rose Blanche or Margaree due to line of sight and the hills that can interfere with the signal.

“There’s limitations on the technology,” admitted Parsons.

Bell Aliant Responds

Responding to e-mail inquiries, a spokesperson for Bell confirmed the pending upgrade.

“Bell will be launching our new high-speed Wireless Home Internet service in Newfoundland and Labrador this year starting with the communities of Burnt Islands and Isle aux Morts. We’ll be letting residents know when the service is available in their area, and they can also visit Bell.ca/FastInternet to check for updates on service availability for their residence,” wrote Katie Hatfield, Corporate Communications for Bell Aliant.

Hatfield also outlined some of the challenges relating to Bell’s ability to upgrade cell service coverage in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Network expansion in rural and sparsely populated regions is always a challenge for private investment alone by companies like Bell. While we continue to invest more than any other communications company in network infrastructure, we also continue to participate in provincial and federal programs to help accelerate broadband expansion in more remote locations.”

Noted Hatfield, “We’ve also been significantly investing in upgrading network capacity on an ongoing basis throughout COVID-19 to manage the increased volumes by consumers, businesses, governments and public safety providers. In fact, we are in the process of upgrading LTE speeds in your area at the Dr. Charles L. LeGrow Health Centre, the Bruce II Sports Centre and the Grand Bay Mall.”

Larger towns like Port aux Basques already have fibre op internet service with Bell, and other than an interfering hill here and there the cell service is also quite reliable.

Port aux Basques

Still, Fire Chief Jerry Musseau of the Channel-Port aux Basques Volunteer Fire Department says that their department is mostly affected by the need to call for resources.

“If we get to a scene and there is no cell phone service in that area, then we have to send a firefighter away in a truck to try to find a signal, and make a call for additional resources.”

The Port aux Basques department responds to vehicle accidents out as far as Codroy Pond, and the spotty cell coverage in key areas is problematic for them too.

“We would just not be able to make a call for any help or get any resources at all otherwise.”

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