In the aftermath of post-tropical storm Fiona, the premier of Nova Scotia is calling on telecommunications companies to “step up,” saying that many residents are still without cell phone service or access to 911 days after the storm pummelled the province.
“Nova Scotians have questions about when their service will be restored, how widespread the outages are and what the companies plan to do to ensure this never happens again,” Tim Houston said in a statement Wednesday.
“It is unacceptable that there are Nova Scotians who can’t call 911 or connect with loved ones during this difficult time. There is no question we need our telecommunications companies to step up and be more transparent.”
Fiona swept through Atlantic Canada last weekend, destroying homes, knocking down power lines and stranding many residents without shelter or communications.
Nova Scotia was one of the provinces hit the hardest in the storm. Houston said in the statement that the province had anticipated the impact on their telecommunications ahead of time, and had contacted key partners, such as Bell, Eastlink, Rogers and Telus, to request that they send representatives so an emergency meeting to co-ordinate prior to the storm.
“Not one telecommunications company was initially willing to send a representative,” the statement alleges. “Only after complaints to senior leadership did Bell agree to send a representative in person, who attended the centre for two days before announcing they would work virtually. Eastlink, Rogers and Telus declined to attend the (Provincial Coordination Centre) in person during the initial response.”
In a Wednesday statement, Bell spokesperson Katie Hatfield said that the company had been working with the province before the storm.
“We understand Premier Houston is coping with the worst natural disaster to hit the province and may not be getting the most up to date information, but Bell has participated in the Provincial Command Centre in person since before the storm hit,” the statement read.
Bell added that their representative worked virtually while they were “making their own property safe,” and that they remained connected to up-to-date information.
“Even at peak, the vast majority of both our wireless and wireline networks were powered up and operational and at this point are close to being back to 100 per cent,” Bell stated.
“Both 911 and our emergency responder network also remained fully functional throughout the storm and aftermath.”
Bell is responsible for 911 infrastructure within Atlantic Canada, along with trucked mobile radio infrastructure used by first responders in the region.
BCE Inc., formerly Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., is the parent company of Bell Media and CTV News.
Telus is also rebutting the premier’s assertion that they have not been involved enough, saying in a statement to CTVNews.ca that they “have been a fully engaged participant prior and throughout” the storm, and that they initiated contact with the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Organization (NSEMO) on September 21 before Fiona hit to offer their support.
“Telus successfully co-ordinated NSEMO’s requests, including relaying safety messages to the affected communities, prioritizing telecommunications restoration for critical health facilities and offering spare generators to support emergency response,” the statement said.
“We continue to collaborate with and support our network partners that own the infrastructure in the area to restore service as soon as possible and to deploy critical equipment, including generators and batteries. The vast majority of the mobility service is now operational. The interruption is a result of the power outage and severe weather conditions.”
Rogers stated Wednesday that they had worked with the provincial and federal government before and after the storm.
“As impacted areas were cleared from downed lines or trees, our local teams were able to restore services as quickly as possible,” they stated. “We now have 99 per cent of services restored across the region.”
In an email to CTVNews.ca, Eastlink said their team has “been in constant communications with NS Power, EMO and other key partners since before the storm and consistently in its aftermath.”
“Our CEO reached out to Premier Houston the day after the storm and spoke with him soon after to ensure the Premier heard from us on how our network fared, how our teams prepared and the work our teams are doing to restore customers and to ensure he had a direct line into us for any follow up if he had questions or concerns,” the statement said.
Eastlink added that they had focused on assessing the impact of Fiona and where their efforts were needed to reroute communications over the hours and days following the storm.
“Once that work was complete, we physically placed a liaison in the Command Centre.”
According to Nova Scotia Power’s outage map, around 91,000 people were still without power in the province as of Wednesday afternoon, with approximately 7,400 active outages.
The northeast section of the province, as well as Cape Breton, were experiencing the most outages. As of 6 a.m., 59 per cent of customers in the northeast region had their power restored, according to an update from NS Power, while 61 per cent of customers in Cape Breton had their power restored. These outages affect cell phone towers as well, because the backup batteries in those towers are running out of juice.
In a letter to Francois-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Houston explained that Nova Scotia Power, the Canadian Red Cross and the regional municipalities of Halifax and Cape Breton had been participating in media interviews and daily briefings to keep Nova Scotians updated through live radio broadcast, “one of the only ways to reach Nova Scotians with no cell or landline service.”
“Our telecommunications partners have had little to no involvement in these briefings. Their absence is notable,” the letter said. “When they do make a spokesperson available to media, questions about how many customers are without service and where, and when Nova Scotians can expect to have their service restored, have largely been unanswered.”
Telus appeared to address this framing in their statement, specifying that they had been part of briefings.
“Telus has attended 15 consecutive Nova Scotia EMO calls, hosted by the Nova Scotia Provincial Coordination Centre, for an average of three calls each day from September 23 to September 27,” the statement said. “We will continue to actively participate in those calls.”
The premier ended the letter by calling for the federal government to hold telecommunications companies accountable for participating in emergency planning and being transparent with customers.
On Prince Edward Island, where high winds knocked down numerous power lines, poor cell phone service has also been reported.
The federal government has stated that restoring telecommunications is a priority in the region, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stating Monday that the storm had exceeded their expectations in terms of damage.
“There will be more to learn on how we keep people protected, given that extreme weather events are going to get, unfortunately, more likely in the coming years,” Trudeau told reporters.
“The Canadian Armed Forces are on the ground in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and on Prince Edward Island,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said. “When it comes to cell service, that is absolutely a priority for Canadians in good times and during disasters, and that’s why we are working hard with the cell phone companies to give Canadians the service they need.”
With files from the Canadian Press