'Bermuda Triangle of cell service': Inwood residents petition for coverage

People driving along Highway 17 in the Interlake report a common experience as they approach the community of Inwood, Man.: suddenly, their cellphone reception cuts out.

Cellular service providers say they offer coverage, but residents say otherwise

Many people in Inwood, Man. say they are forced to rely on landlines or use signal boosters due to a lack of cellular service in their community. (iStock)

People driving along Highway 17 in the Interlake report a common experience as they approach the community of Inwood, Man.: suddenly, their cellphone reception cuts out.

"I always say, we live in the Bermuda Triangle of cell service," said Cheryl Stark.

Stark owns a hair salon in Inwood. She is one of several people in the community who told CBC News they can't get cellphone service without using older-style CMDA flip phones or using signal boosters.

Cliff Nelson was one of those people who relied on an older phone for cell service until about two months ago, when he said his account with Koodo was cancelled because Telus, which owns Koodo, upgraded its network.

"I ended up getting a new phone, supposedly a smartphone, but it's not really smart the way it is because there's no service here," he said.

The loss of cell service drove Nelson to start a petition to improve coverage in the community. The petition now has hundreds of signatures and Nelson said he plans on sending copies to the three major cellular providers in Manitoba — Bell MTS, Telus and Rogers — as well as MP James Bezan and MLA Ralph Eichler.

Stark was one of the first people to sign the petition. She also relied on an old phone until it broke, at which time she says Fido, which is owned by Rogers, wouldn't replace it, forcing her to get a new smartphone. 

Now, she says she has to drive about 10 minutes outside the community to get service, or use a booster, which she paid $500 for. Other people rely entirely on landlines, but even that can be unreliable, she said.

"We had a lightning strike and we didn't have a landline for, I think it was three weeks, and no cell service to compensate," she said.

Cell companies say they offer coverage

A spokesperson for Telus told CBC News the older phones rely on an outdated technology called CDMA and the company stopped selling CDMA-enabled devices in 2009.

Starting in February 2016, the company started sending notices to customers that it was phasing out the technology and offering discounts to switch to newer smartphones on their 4G.

"There may be some cases where customers see a slight change in their network coverage depending on their location," said the spokesperson.

"For example, the CDMA site they were receiving coverage from may have been closer to them in proximity than the 4G site, and topography always plays a role in coverage reach, particularly in valleys."

A spokesperson for Rogers Wireless said people in Inwood are covered by a cell tower near Teulon, Man. that supports LTE, 3G and 2G.

Stark laughed when told that the cell companies said they cover her area. "I just wish that they would get out here, check it out and see how much your phone works for you."

Inwood isn't the only community experiencing a loss of service as older technology is phased out. Residents in Winnipegosis launched a petition after receiving notice from Bell MTS that their CDMA service would be discontinued, despite a lack of service from newer 4G or LTE networks.

Many reasons for lack of service

There are many reasons why a cell companies might say they offer service in an area, while people who live in that area say it doesn't work, said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

Companies will often write into the fine print of their contracts that they cannot guarantee service everywhere in a customer's area, due to possible obstruction from physical objects such as mountains, valleys, or trees.

"There's always going to be a discrepancy between what people say and what the companies say, and the reason is because they're both right," said Lawford.

Lawford recommends people in Inwood complain to the CRTC, which sets out minimum service requirements for telecommunications.

"Everyone should be able to have the same level of telecom service in Canada. That's a goal the CRTC has set and they did put a service quality level on broadband internet but they didn't really put one for cellphone service. That was probably a mistake," he said.

New fund could help improve service

Communities like Inwood could potentially benefit from a $750 million fund the CRTC is setting up to improve broadband service in remote areas over the next five years, Lawford said.

"I'm imagining some companies, if they're going to build, say, a fixed wireless solution for broadband, they'd probably offer cell service at the same time. So that may be something that's coming," he said.

In the meantime, people like Rose Emms, who owns Rosie's Cafe in Inwood, will keep hearing from visitors to the community who lose their service on their way through the town.

"This is kind of a dead zone," she said.