New Brunswick

Poor cellphone service a safety issue for rural areas, MP says

A member of Parliament is trying to find a solution to the lack of cell service in parts of the province after a New Brunswick fire chief expressed concern about public safety.

Emergency responders say paltry cell service puts them and public at risk

In rural Albert County, cellphone service can't be depended on in an emergency, a fire chief says. (Mahesh Kumar A./Reuters)

A member of Parliament is trying to find a solution to the lack of cellphone service in parts of the province after a New Brunswick fire chief expressed concern over public safety.

"We've evolved so quickly as a society from internet and cell service being a relatively new technology to being a crucial technology," said Alaina Lockhart, the Liberal MP for Fundy Royal.

Lockhart said she has been in talks with Kent Steeves, chief of the Elgin Fire Department, who has been lobbying for reliable cellphone coverage in Albert County for months.

The fire chief said emergency crews and the people they're trying to help are at a disadvantage because service is spotty or non-existent.

Lockhart agreed.

Not only is cell coverage important for innovation and social inclusion, she said, it's also necessary for safety.

Elgin Fire Chief Kent Steeves has been pushing for cellphone service to ensure a reliable response to 911 calls. (Submitted by Kent Steeves)

"This is an issue I hope we can work together and try to resolve," Lockhart said.

She said Ottawa recently announced the Connect to Innovate program, which will spend $500 million by 2021 to bring high-speed Internet to 300 rural and remote communities in Canada. 

To date, according to the federal government website, almost $368 million in Connect to Innovate money has been approved for service providers in all provinces and territories but New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. 

Can't solve it alone

Lockhart said government can't solve all the issues on its own and needs to be working alongside cellphone companies and discuss what's holding service back.

"Clearly, these companies operate with a business case, so because of the sparsity of uptake, the business case might not be there for them to proceed," she said.

Fundy Royal MP Alaina Lockhart said cellphone coverage is necessary for safety in rural areas. (CBC)

"But when we're talking about safety and social inclusion and innovation, then I feel that's a place where government can co-operate to make sure we provide a level of service to all of our citizens."

Steeves said he has been talking to Bell Canada about building onto a tower near Boyd Mountain.   

Chief gets little response

The fire chief would not reveal how much it would cost to add to a cell tower but said it would be lower than the cost of a fire truck, which can range from $150,000 to $1 million.

Isabelle Boulet, a spokesperson with Bell Aliant, said the company doesn't have any announcements to make right now about "enhanced" service in Albert County.

Although Lockhart said cellphone coverage in rural areas has been discussed with the province, Steeves said the provincial government hasn't responded yet.

He's still hoping the province will help cover some of the costs of bringing cell service to Albert County.

Province suggests it's aware

Alexandra Davis, a spokesperson for New Brunswick's Department of Public Safety, said about 60 per cent of 911 calls come from cellular phones.

 "We recognize the benefit that the proliferation of cellular phones has had in allowing residents to call for help from more remote locations," she said.

She said cell services are delivered by the private sector, but the government works with service providers like Rogers and Bell to ensure they are aware of the priorities.

"We look forward to discussing this important issue and working with cellular service providers to develop a solution and better understand their future plans for the delivery of emergency services in this region," Davis said.