Nova Scotia

Cell outages during storms like Fiona will continue unless regulations improve, advocate says

Nova Scotians experienced widespread cellphone and mobile internet service outages in the wake of post-tropical storm Fiona on the weekend due to major power blackouts and damage to cell towers.

Telecom companies won't share numbers on how many clients lost service

Some cellphone and mobile internet service were lost in the province over the weekend due to major power blackouts and damage to cell towers from post-tropical storm Fiona. (Wayhome studio/Shutterstock)

Nova Scotians will continue to have issues calling or texting loved ones after major storms like Fiona if the federal regulator does not start holding telecommunications companies to a higher standard, says a consumer advocate.

There were widespread cellphone and mobile internet service interruptions in the province over the weekend due to major power blackouts and damage to cell towers from post-tropical storm Fiona.

And there are still areas of the province without cellphone service Monday although companies declined to say exactly  how many customers have been affected.

"Certainly it should be a standard where you're not waiting more than a day to get critical services back on, even if … there's a lot of towers down," said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

Lawford lays much of the blame on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which regulates telecommunication companies.

A worker walks past a downed power pole caused by post-tropical storm Fiona in Dartmouth, N.S., on Sunday. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

He says most wireless towers in Nova Scotia have battery backup for power outages and companies can also add generators for power until electricity is restored. But Lawford said most N.S. cell towers don't have backup generators because the CRTC hasn't required them.

"Until there's a discussion at the regulator and some rules, companies do what's cheapest. And what's cheapest is putting four-to-six-hour batteries on everything, cross your fingers and hope everything goes good," Lawford said.

When asked for an interview Monday, a CRTC spokesperson pointed to comments made by chairperson and CEO Ian Scott about the fallout of the nationwide Rogers outage in July.

At the time, Scott told the federal standing committee on industry and technology that climate change is putting networks at risk, which is why the CRTC will take "longer-term action to ensure all telecommunications providers better protect Canadians."

In the wake of damage from post-tropical storm Dorian in September 2019, the CRTC did reach out to Bell, Telus, Rogers and Eastlink looking for information.

CRTC asked for information post-Dorian

The regulator asked the companies for estimates of the number of customers affected by outages for more than 24 hours, and measures to both "improve network resiliency and recovery" before Dorian and those planned for the future.

All companies provided that information to the CRTC, but did not want it made public. Bell and Telus asked for some of their submissions to be redacted, while Eastlink and Rogers demanded their entire reports be kept confidential. 

The CRTC pushed back, but the companies successfully argued much of the information should be kept confidential because it contained sensitive business including subscriber counts.

United States publishes updates

That's a stark contrast to the United States where the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been posting regular status reports for areas impacted by Hurricane Fiona, like Puerto Rico. 

Beyond communication issues, those without cell service also would not receive vital updates via emergency alerts. The country's Alert Ready system sends alerts to cellphones and wireless devices that are compatible with an LTE network — but the device must be connected to that network to get them.

Public Interest Advocacy Centre executive director John Lawford says it's up to the CRTC to hold telecom companies to account and ensure they are more resilient in the wake of major storms. (CBC)

As of Monday, Rogers said 90 per cent of its services across the region had been restored, while Bell said the "vast majority" of its wireless sites were up and running. 

Both companies said their local teams were working to restore services as safely and quickly as possible, and had brought in teams of technicians from Ontario and Quebec to help.

Geoff Moore, the director of network operations at Bell, said Sunday that they started planning a week in advance and "spared no expense" to ensure that the network stayed up, but some cell tower backup batteries and generators still ran out.

Eastlink towers largely unimpacted

Eastlink CEO Jeff Gillham said 80 per cent of the Nova Scotia-based company's mobile towers "were untouched and did not have any service interruption" during the storm. He added all their cell towers have backup battery systems that automatically cut over to an on-site generator when the batteries run out.

Dorian taught them many lessons, Gillham said, including "you can never be over-prepared" for these types of weather events. He said Eastlink staff checked all fibre routes before the storm. 

"We live in Atlantic Canada, we know that extreme weather events are going to happen here. They're always going to happen here," Gillham said.

"It's about building more and more resilience into the network and continuing to learn … from these events and eventually you get better and better."

How well did government officials prepare ahead of Hurricane Fiona? What should be done differently next time? We ask Kevin Quigley, director of Dalhousie University's MacEachen Institute for Public Policy. He specializes in the government's role in emergency and disaster management.

Trudeau says always 'lessons to learn'

When asked about the telecom issues in a press conference Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Fiona was a very difficult storm that "exceeded even the dire predictions" that many had.

"Of course, there are always lessons to learn. We have learned lessons since Dorian and implemented them. There will be more to learn on how we keep the people protected given that extreme weather events are going to get unfortunately more likely in the coming years," Trudeau said.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said communications problems are more than an inconvenience for people, and he plans to raise the issue with federal government officials.

"The communications issues that we've all experienced have had a huge impact on, you know, just the mental health of people who are trying to reach out to a loved one," he told reporters during a briefing on Monday.

"They've had operational issues for crews that are out trying to get on with the recovery. They're not an inconvenience, they're very real."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haley Ryan

Reporter

Haley Ryan is the municipal affairs reporter for CBC covering mainland Nova Scotia. Got a story idea? Send an email to haley.ryan@cbc.ca, or reach out on Twitter @hkryan17.

With files from Shaina Luck, Michael Gorman and Jean Laroche

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