When Motorola announced in 2001 that it would stop making pagers — those icons of 1990s technology that helped make the company a global telecom giant — Forbes magazine asked somewhat rhetorically if the decision heralded “the death” of paging.

It seems the reports of the pager's demise were somewhat premature, at least in Canada. 

While the number of such devices in use has been plummeting each year since their height in the mid-'90s, Canada's Big Three telecom companies all still operate pager networks.

Although Telus announced this week that it would be discontinuing most of its Canadian pager service, a significant number of people still use beepers.

As of 2013, about 161,500 Canadians still had paging service subscriptions and the industry generated nearly $18.5 million in revenues, according to the CRTC’s most recent communications monitoring report.

The majority of remaining pager users are health-care workers and first responders, says Garry Fitzgerald, chair of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association and CEO of PageNet, a paging service provider.

These are professions in which the stakes of communicating quickly, securely and without potential interference are at their highest and this is something pagers do consistently well, Fitzgerald says.

“Paging has become mostly a critical messaging device best used when other technologies either don’t fit the situation or simply won’t work that effectively, or at all,” he says.

Steady death march

In the event of a major disaster, like a mega-thrust earthquake in B.C., for example, two-way messaging pagers could be a lifeline if cellular networks are knocked out or overloaded in the immediate aftermath. Paging systems often use multiple base transmitters to "simulcast" a signal on the same radio frequency, which, combined with the use of satellite communications, can make the beeper a more reliable tool.

Telus Surveillance 20140918

Telus will shut off its remaining paging network by March 31. Bell and Rogers are expected to follow suit in the coming years, industry watchers say. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Even as cellular coverage continues to expand in Canada, there are still many places where the end of paging service presents a potential problem for public safety.

Several municipalities in rural Quebec, where emergency services rely heavily on pagers due to patchy, unreliable or non-existent cellular coverage, expressed worry after Telus said it would end paging services in the province by March 31.

"It's been in the works for a long time. We are turning down the service because very few people still use it,” says Telus spokesman Chris Garretson. "This is thirty-year-old technology — the infrastructure is aging and replacement parts are difficult to get.”

'We have medical students who come in to work and we give them a pager and they look at us like we’re crazy.' - Robert Wu, physician of internal medicine'

The telecom company is also eliminating its pager services in B.C. and Alberta.

Despite the perception among most people that pagers are an archaic mode of communication, those that depend on the devices in dire circumstances are hesitant to rely solely on alternatives such as smart phones.

“If you are a person who doesn’t need paging, then you probably really don’t need it. But if you are a person who does, then you probably really, really, really need it. That tends to be first-responder types,” says Fitzgerald.

Though Bell and Rogers said in email statements they have no current plans to discontinue their paging services, industry watchers such as Toronto-based analyst and consultant Eamon Hoey say they will likely follow suit sooner rather than later.

A decade late

In the U.S., which had an estimated 50 million pager users in the mid-'90s, telecom companies began halting service more than a decade ago. The same was true in Europe and East Asia, though pagers never penetrated those markets as thoroughly.

Canada has been slower to turn down pager services, despite a fairly rapid increase in cell coverage and what Hoey calls a “commendable and highly successful” introduction to the LTE network in recent years.

Smartphone Kill Switch

Despite widespread adoption of smartphones across the world, some regions still rely on pagers for critical communications. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

One of the reasons is that cellular plans are generally more expensive in Canada than in the U.S. or Europe, even for the most basic service. 

It is the high costs of switching to cellular that has partly helped maintain one of the last bastions of the pager: hospitals.

While most other industries have moved on to more current technology, hospitals remain holdouts because pagers are dependable, service plans cost between $5 and $10 per month and health-care professionals are notoriously slow to switch to new technologies.

“Pagers are still viewed by many as the most reliable form of communication,” says Dr. Robert Wu, an internal medicine physician with the University Health Network.

“We have medical students who come in to work and we give them a pager and they look at us like we’re crazy,” Wu laughs, before repeating the adage that “it used to be doctors and drug dealers with pagers. Now it’s just doctors.”

The last great refuge

Soon enough, however, doctors will inevitably join drug dealers on the LTE network.

The problem with paging, says Wu, is that there is no way for doctors to assess the urgency of the message from a standard page, which only displays a phone number. The result can be delayed responses or health-care workers panicking to respond to non-emergency calls.

There’s often no way for nurses to know if the page even reached the correct destination. A study completed in 2008 at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital found that about 14 per cent of pages sent at the facility over a two-month period were sent to the wrong person.

A host of recent research from Canada and the U.S. has shown that replacing pagers with cellular technology results in more effective communication between hospital staff, quicker responses from doctors and fewer preventable errors in patient care.

Similarly, the long-held belief that cellular signals adversely affect hospital equipment was discredited nearly a decade ago, and increasingly doctors and nurses are switching to smart technology, says Wu.

“Ten years ago, everybody carried a pager. Now it’s about 50 to 70 per cent,” Wu estimates, who says the prevalence of pagers is less a measure of their usefulness than the result of a general technophobia among some health-care workers. 

“It reflects how slow the health-care profession is to adopt new technologies. Why are we still using fax machines? We’ve got something that works, so we just stick with it.”

Wu predicts pagers will finally disappear from hospitals within the next five years, at which point we can probably declare the patient dead.