5-day phone, internet outage in Colville Lake causes havoc

Co-op manager Bill Sahota gave out thousands of dollars in credit to allow people to continue to buy groceries during the outage.

Phone and internet weren't the only affected services; debit machines and ATMs went down as well

A damaged satellite antenna left phones working within Colville Lake, but calls to the outside world, as well as the internet, were impossible until 1 a.m. Wednesday. (CBC)

The phone service disruption in Colville Lake is over as of early Wednesday morning, ending five days of isolation for the remote community. 

A damaged satellite antenna left phones working within the community, but calls to the outside world, as well as the internet, were impossible until 1 a.m. Wednesday.

For Bill Sahota, that meant watching news on TV about a norovirus update at his daughter's university in Toronto and not being able to check on her. 

"You can live without Facebook for a couple of days, but phones?" he says. 

Meanwhile, Sahota had his own problems to deal with; he is the manager of the Kapami Co-op, the town's general store. The debit machines and ATMs were useless without phone service, meaning most shoppers had to put their purchases on credit — which some of them didn't actually have. 

"Probably an extra $5,000, $6,000 we had to let people charge," he says, compared to about $800 on a regular day. "But some people haven't got charge accounts. So I was helping them out; I said, 'you can charge on mine and when they come back up you can just pay me back.'"

On top of all that, Monday was the day for placing orders with his suppliers in Winnipeg. Sahota had to send his order on a paper slip on a plane heading to Norman Wells, where it could be phoned in for him. Even after all that, he still expects to be short on produce for the next two weeks.

"It did impact everybody in so many different ways," he says. 

"Down south you can get away with it." 

Chief Wilbert Kochon says satellite phones were instrumental in keeping the community running during the outage. A medevac had to be performed for an elder, requiring the clinic's satellite phone, and even the Northwestel technicians who came to repair the satellite needed at one point to borrow his phone. 

Northwestel explained in a statement e-mailed to CBC that the outage lasted so long because the remoteness of the community meant "added Northwestel technicians were flown into Colville Lake and back up equipment had to be transported over several hours of ice road."

Kochon says is already working on a backup plan for next time. For now, however, he says there is one decidedly low-tech solution to being "too dependent" on links to the outside. 

"Start carrying more cash." 


Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.