More than 1,000 kilometers of primary roads and just under five per cent of Nova Scotia’s civic addresses are in dead zones for mobile phone service, according to a report commissioned for the province and provided to CBC under access to information.
It is an issue that the Minister of Public Works, Kim Masland, acknowledges that worries her as a security problem and an economic burden.
“Mobile service is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Masland told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Halifax on Thursday.
The cell service report found that 21,143 civic addresses in the province had no service, out of a total of about 461,000. Civic addresses include all homes, businesses and facilities in the province.
The report was commissioned by Crown Build Nova Scotia corporation from an external company and delivered in July 2022.
It found that Cumberland, Guysborough, Halifax and Inverness counties have more than 2,000 unserved civic addresses.
In Guysborough County that represents 35 percent of addresses, which doesn’t surprise Gail Martin, who lives in Moser River, near the Halifax-Guysborough county line.
“We don’t have cell service here. If we go to a beach where it’s open, with no obstacles, we can get a couple of bars. But, I mean, that’s not acceptable.” [that] you have to run to the beach to use your cell phone,” he said.
No road service
The report also found that 1,010 kilometers of the province’s main roads have no coverage.
These include interprovincial routes, such as Highways 374 and 348, which run between the East Coast and Pictou County. Other problem routes include the 316 in Guysborough County, the 245 in Antigonish and the 209, which runs along the Bay of Fundy in Cumberland County.
About a third of the popular Cabot Trail tourist route is also a dead zone.
Sue Amberg, who lives in Ecum Secum on the East Coast, started a petition over the summer imploring phone companies and regulators to improve service in the area.
Amberg has heard from many local residents and visitors to Nova Scotia who are fed up with the lack of service in communities and on the roads.
“They have no problems where they live and all of a sudden they come to the East Coast and they can’t believe they’re not getting cell service,” he said.
Amberg said he once went off the road while driving and ended up in the ditch. She was unharmed, but she was unable to use her phone to call for help.
“Only one trucker came up next to me and happened to see me and felt compelled to stop,” he said.
“He was running with a phone in his hand trying to get a signal, to try to call someone to report the accident, but he couldn’t reach anyone.”
25 New Towers Suggested to Get You Started
The Build Nova Scotia report identified 25 potential sites for new cell phone transmission towers, which could cover 9,569 homes of the more than 21,000 without coverage.
Adding sites for up to a total of 73 towers would reach 15,516 addresses.
The report did not estimate exactly how many towers would be needed to achieve “complete geographic coverage,” but estimated that 200 more towers could be needed “in addition to the 73 already evaluated in this report.” He said those towers would have to be in remote areas that currently have no cell phone infrastructure.
The report provided cost figures for the 25- and 73-tower scenarios, but they were redacted in information provided to CBC.
He acknowledged that towers provided by mobile operators such as Bell, Rogers, Telus and Eastlink are only placed in areas where companies get the “maximum return” in terms of subscribers.
CBC asked Masland who he thought should pay the cost of filling the cell holes.
“I think this is part of the conversations that Build Nova Scotia is having with service providers, but it’s also a conversation that needs to be had with the federal government,” Masland said.
“I hope the federal government steps up, much like we did with rural Internet service.”
CBC asked the CRTC, the federal agency responsible for regulating telecommunications access, if it had seen a copy of the Nova Scotia report and what its next steps would be.
A CRTC spokesperson responded in a statement that the agency is working on a new approach to wireless competition, including new regulations for smaller companies that offer services piggybacking on large carriers’ networks.
“Our efforts will accelerate competition in areas where it is currently limited,” the statement said.
Masland also said Build Nova Scotia has developed a strategy alongside telecommunications companies and the federal government. Although she did not reveal any details, Masland said she was “very pleased” with the strategy and promised it would be revealed “in the coming months.”
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