North

'It's frustrating': N.W.T. cancer patient feels trapped by warring telecom companies

Michelle Hagen, from Behchoko, N.W.T., blames a communication breakdown between her and her hospital on an ongoing dispute before the CRTC involving two Canadian telecommunications firms.

Michelle Hagen says hospital was unable to reach her with information about surgery for 2 days

Michelle Hagen says she missed two days worth of calls from her hospital last week. She blames it on an ongoing dispute between two telecom companies. (Submitted by Michelle Hagen)

A woman in the Northwest Territories says she missed two days worth of calls from her hospital while she prepared for cancer surgery, and is blaming it on a spat between two Canadian cell phone providers.

Michelle Hagen has stage four cancer. She lives in Behchoko, N.W.T., about 100 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife, and often travels to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton for treatment.  

She says the hospital repeatedly tried to phone her last Wednesday and Thursday about her surgery, scheduled for October, but their calls wouldn't connect.

"They tried for two days and all they got was a busy signal," Hagen said. "Finally, they called my brother in Ontario, they got through to him and [he] was able to message me to call the hospital."

The reason behind this communication breakdown might lie in an ongoing dispute between her phone carrier, Ice Wireless, and Telus, she said. Hagen believes the hospital's calls to her, an Ice Wireless customer, were blocked because the hospital is a Telus customer. 

In a complaint to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in August, Iristel — the parent company of Ice Wireless — alleged that Telus is actively blocking calls from Telus customers to Ice Wireless customers and has been doing so since May 29.

Telus insists it's not blocking any calls. Instead, it says it's taking steps to "control the flow of traffic to Iristel," according to a Sept. 10 submission to the CRTC.  

Telus argues it's doing this because Iristel is engaging in traffic stimulation, a practice where Iristel numbers in Northern Canada are assigned to services not located in the North, illegally boosting its profits from a previous agreement with Telus.

'It's just frustrating'

The CRTC has yet to rule on the validity of either claim, but Hagen says regular customers like her are the ones who suffer while the two companies continue their fight before Canada's telecommunications regulator.

Hagen says she can't be certain, but suspects she's been missing calls for the past three months, which roughly aligns with what Iristel has alleged to the CRTC.

"It's just frustrating," she said. "People can't get ahold of me and it's not just the hospital. My daughter is very nervous when she can't reach me, or message me and I don't call her back.

"She just [thinks] the worst. She's getting stressed out because she can't reach us when she needs to reach us."

Most of Hagen's family lives in Ontario and wants to be able to speak with her on the phone about her medical progress, she said.

"We need to have a phone, we need to be in contact with our family," Hagen said. "It's scary for them. My husband and I are the only ones living up North."

Michelle and Wayne Hagen are both Ice Wireless customers without a landline. They suspect calls to them from Telus customers have been dropped for the past three months. (Submitted by Michelle Hagen)

CBC News called Hagen and her husband Wayne Hagen from a phone connected to the Telus network on Tuesday morning.

One of four calls to two different numbers connected, while two calls prompted the following automated message: "all circuits are busy, please try your call again later."

Another call went to a different automated message which stated: "the party you are trying to reach is busy and cannot take your call."

Kirsten Goruk, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health Services, couldn't confirm Hagen's story, citing patient privacy concerns, but did confirm the Royal Alexandra Hospital contracts Telus for its phone service.

Overall, she said, staff at the hospital have not had trouble reaching patients who live in the Northwest Territories over the phone. Goruk also noted it's standard practice to ask for alternate contact information and the hospital "makes every attempt to connect with a patient."

'Heavy-handed approach'

Iristel president Samer Bishay stands by submissions his company made to the CRTC in August and rejects the assertion by Telus that his company is doing anything wrong. (Submitted by Samer Bishay)

Samer Bishay, the CEO of Iristel, the parent company of Ice Wireless, stands by his company's submission to the CRTC, accusing Telus of "heavy-handed tactics" and said the company shows a "blatant disregard for the telecommunications laws of this country."  

"The CRTC is taking a little too long to act on this. There are innocent Canadians caught in the crossfire and there's no need for this," he said.   

Bishay also stands by his position that Iristel is not stimulating traffic to the North, saying any increase in calls to the North are a natural result of Iristel's growth and Telus's decision to sell phones in Yellowknife.   

"They're referencing that traffic to the North has significantly increased … causing them significant damage because they're seeing an increase in their bills to providers [like Iristel]," Bishay said. "There's many flaws with that argument."

He pledged to speak with the Hagens and promised to credit Michelle for the three months of cell phone service.

Darren Entwistle, President and CEO of Telus, speaks at the company's annual general meeting in Toronto on Thursday, May 11, 2017. The company is involved in an ongoing dispute with Iristel in front of the CRTC. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for Telus was not made available for an interview for this story, but the company sent a statement, which restates its position sent to the CRTC. It also says:

"While we can't confirm that this call failure was caused by congestion on the interconnection with Iristel, out of an abundance of caution and despite the illegal actions by Iristel we have taken steps to reduce the congestion being caused by Iristel.

"We will continue to monitor the call traffic going forward, and we again request that Iristel cease its traffic stimulation activities."  

A spokeswoman for the CRTC said the regulator is reviewing the submissions from Iristel and Telus and is determining whether more information is needed before making a ruling.

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