Nova Scotia

Feds consider shushing a human voice reading the weather in Cape Breton

The sound of a human voice reading the weather could soon turn to silence in Cape Breton, if the federal government decommissions its VHF radio transmitter on the island.

Environment Canada says its website, mobile app make accessing weather information easier than ever

Environment Canada is considering decommissioning its Weatheradio VHF transmitter in Cape Breton, unless it hears opposition from users. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The sound of a human voice reading the weather has been on the air waves in Canada for about 50 years.

That could soon turn to silence in Cape Breton, if the federal government decommissions its VHF radio transmitter on the island.

Ken Macdonald, executive director of national programs for the Meteorological Service of Canada, said Environment Canada's website and mobile phone app make accessing weather information easier than ever.

"There's just so many more ways of communicating today that we're evaluating the extent that weather radio is still a relevant service to our users," he said.

The federal government's Weatheradio service is supported by about 220 transmitters across the country, said Macdonald, and up to 48 of those may be shut down if users don't speak out.

Macdonald said the network was built in the 1970s, but Environment Canada's website contains a lot of weather information and its new mobile phone app has been available since last year.

Environment Canada is reviewing 48 of 220 VHF radio transmitters across the country in areas where cellphone and internet service are good, says Ken Macdonald. (Environment Canada)

How many people are actually using the radio service for weather information is difficult to determine, though, he said.

"Unlike our website where we know exactly how many people are using it, we don't know how many people are using the radio," Macdonald said.

Environment Canada is initially targeting areas that have good internet and cell coverage to review radio usage, he said.

The meteorological service has begun reaching out to the community to gauge opinions and plans to begin broadcasting a message soon that will ask listeners for feedback.

Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke tweeted out his opposition this week, saying internet and cell service are "spotty at best" and radio "remains a lifeline" for many area residents.

He also said websites and apps can be "rendered useless" in the event of storms.

Macdonald said Environment Canada is aware there are dead zones where internet coverage is not available in Cape Breton, but he said the radio transmitter is located on a cell tower, so radio coverage is dependent on the location of that tower.

Radio service 'not reliable'

The programming is also affected by storms, Macdonald said.

"There may be power to the transmitter, but we won't be getting information onto it, because we rely on internet to get it there, so it isn't a reliable source of information when those services go down."

Macdonald also said cost is a factor in whether some transmitters will be shut down. The costs vary depending on the remoteness of the location, he said, but on average, each transmitter costs about $12,000 a year.

Reg Bonner, a member of the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club who has been boating for about 60 years, says he has a cellphone and GPS unit on board his boat, but prefers the radio. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Reg Bonner, a member of the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club who has been boating for about 60 years, said he has a cellphone and GPS unit on board his boat, but said he still likes the human touch.

"Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I like to hear that VHF," Bonner said.

Kevin Squires, president of the Maritime Fishermen's Union Local 6 in Cape Breton, said many in the industry have computers and cellphones, but the radio is more user friendly.

"Environment Canada has been the go-to for a lot of us and we're an older population so we tend to rely on the older methods quite often, so VHF radio remains pretty important to people," he said.

"The VHF radio, we can turn over to the weather forecast and listen to it while we're going about our daily fishing activities."

Kevin Squires, president of Local 6 of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, says fishermen would feel more confident in a system that uses proven technology. (Kevin Squires)

Squires also said he wonders why Environment Canada has designed a radio broadcasting system that relies on internet technology with no backup.

"I had always expected that the broadcasts would take place out of radio stations that we have come to depend upon for a long time," he said.

"We'd feel a lot more confident if we knew that the service was based on a technology that was found useful and workable over the years."

Jordan MacDougall, president of the Inverness South Fishermen's Association, agreed, saying VHF radio is important on the water, because the signal reaches areas where websites and mobile apps don't.

"You're getting the information, even though you don't have internet service," MacDougall said.

Seeking feedback

Macdonald said Environment Canada wants to hear from users before making a final decision on the Cape Breton transmitter later this year.

If no one objects, a transmitter can be decommissioned fairly quickly, he said, but in areas where people speak up, Environment Canada will do more consultation before a decision is made.

Weatheradio is available on four VHF frequencies around Nova Scotia.

Macdonald said anyone with comments or concerns about the transmitter or program in Cape Breton should call 1-877-789-7733 or email ec.radio.ec@canada.ca.

Weather information is also available at weather.gc.ca or from the WeatherCAN mobile app.

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About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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