SaskTel dead zone leaves village with dial-up internet, spotty cell service

A community in southern Saskatchewan is feeling disconnected from the digital world and ignored by SaskTel, the Crown corporation that serves the area.

Frustrated residents call on SaskTel to extend high-speed internet service to St. Victor

St. Victor is in a valley and residents say that is why connections to cell towers, on higher ground, is poor. (Ryan Pilon/CBC)

A community in southern Saskatchewan is feeling disconnected from the digital world and ignored by SaskTel, the Crown corporation that serves the area.

The village of St. Victor, about 200 kilometres southwest of Regina, has poor cell service and no wireless high-speed internet. Sitting at the bottom of a valley, connections to the nearest cell towers are unreliable.

"It's the 21st century in a first-world country and I can't get internet?" said Rae Crothers, who needs a web connection to work from her home. "We are a community that's 50 kilometres from the U.S. border [and] between the Trans-Canada [Highway]. We're not in the middle of nowhere."

Some people in the community use a cell phone booster, a device that can amplify a signal. But boosters can cost several hundred dollars and do not always solve the problem.

"As long as your phone is right beside the booster, on a good day you might have four bars," Wendy Olynyk, who has tried them, said. "If you go a little bit away from it, you lose it."

As for the internet, the only options are a dial-up service or a satellite connection.

Zachary Flynn, who subscribes to a satellite internet service, says the transmission speed is achingly slow and the connection is often interrupted.

"It was costing me $95 a month to have internet that worked intermittently," Flynn said. "You might be able to get to a web page once in a blue moon."

It's the 21st century in a first-world country and I can't get internet ?- Rae Crothers

Like many in the community, Crothers was hoping things would change in 2013 when SaskTel installed a cell tower in Scout Lake, about 15 kilometres southwest of the village. However, due to the height of the Scout Lake tower, St. Victor still finds itself in a zone with poor reception.

"SaskTel did not do their due diligence," Crothers said. "That tower is basically not serving anybody up there. There's a few farms up there, there's a small village up there, but there's really not much use for that tower."

Although the village of St. Victor is home to about 25 people, Crothers believes that much of surrounding area, in the Rural Municipality of Willow Bunch is affected as well.

David Kirby, reeve of the RM, disagrees with that view. By his estimation, less than 20 per cent of the RM's population lives in the valley. While he could not say precisely how many people lack coverage, he noted the total population of the RM is about 360 people.

In St. Victor, Crothers said she has raised the service issue with SaskTel, a provincial Crown corporation, but was told not to expect any improvements for at least 10 years.

In a written statement, SaskTel acknowledged St. Victor is in a limited coverage zone. According to SaskTel, service to rural communities is very expensive and Saskatchewan has the fewest customers per square kilometre of any province. Terrain can also affect the range and quality of wireless services, the company said. SaskTel also pointed out that its wireless network reaches more than 98 per cent of the province's population.

SaskTel said it has no current plans to expand or enhance wireless service in the St. Victor area. 

More than an inconvenience

Rae Crothers uses two antennas, a cell phone booster and her cell phone in order to get an internet connection in St. Victor, Sask. (Ryan Pilon/CBC)

Residents of St. Victor say poor cell coverage and no high-speed internet isn't just an inconvenience, but can be dangerous and affect their livelihoods.

Flynn works as a surveyor and said he has missed job opportunities because of the lack of cell coverage.

"There's periods where I'm on call — they need me to go out to a site or something like that — and they give me a call and if they can't reach me, then they might get a hold of someone else, contact another contractor," Flynn said. "Then I'm out money." 

I drive just three kilometres up a hill to my neighbour's field ... and I can have super high-speed internet.- Rae Crothers

Crothers, who works out of her home running a blog and providing a transcription service, says the poor service makes that difficult.

For transcriptions she must download audio and video files and communicate frequently with her clients. Her internet connection is a complicated setup which has her using with two antennas, a booster and her cell phone to capture a signal from a tower near Limerick, a village about 60 kilometres away. Even then, she says, the internet can be slow or become disconnected.

"More often than not during the day, I pack up my computer, pack up my phone that I use as a hot spot [and] I drive just three kilometres up a hill to my neighbour's field," Crothers said. "[It's the] middle of nowhere with the cows and I can have super high-speed internet."

A coverage map from SaskTel's shows that St. Victor is in a zone with limited service. (SaskTel)

Crothers said the service is worse in the summer months when there are more tourists in the area and people are using the same tower near Limerick.

She said there is also a safety concern when tourists come to St. Victor seeking help.

"During the summer at least once a week I've got a tourist coming up to me saying, 'I've got an emergency, how do I call out of this place?'" she said.

Internet impasse

Crothers said she has provided suggestions to SaskTel on how to improve service. The company could install a repeater system, she says, which takes a signal and rebroadcasts it to overcome signal-blocking terrain. SaskTel could also link the village to the internet service in the town of Willow Bunch though a hardwired connection. She said both suggestions were turned down.

SaskTel said it has a Shared Model Program, which could be an option for the residents of St. Victor and area. Under the program, residents pay some — or all — of the costs incurred by SaskTel to provide coverage to those without service.

Warren McCall, an NDP MLA who is the Official Opposition's critic for SaskTel, said he contacted the minister responsible for the company about the service issue in St. Victor. McCall said he wants to know if the tower built near Scout Lake was put in the wrong place. He also wants SaskTel to work with the community on a solution, but has not heard back.

Crothers said if nothing changes she will move out of St. Victor, perhaps back to Mexico where she says she enjoyed better internet service.


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