Opposition calls for probe of cellphone services in emergencies

Opposition critics are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to look into how reliable Canada's cellphone networks are in emergencies after a devastating series of tornadoes and a prolonged power failure in the Ottawa area left many with little or no cellphone service.

MPs say they want to know how reliable cellphone services are during prolonged power failures

Opposition MPs are calling on the government to examine the reliability of Canada's cellphone systems in emergencies like a prolonged power failure. (Hydro One)

Opposition critics are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to look into how reliable Canada's cellphone networks are in emergencies after a devastating series of tornadoes and a prolonged power failure in the Ottawa area left many with little or no cellphone service.

Conservative MP Dane Lloyd moved Monday to have the House of Commons industry committee hold hearings on the issue. The committee is expected to discuss his motion in coming days.

Conservative MP Dan Albas said he wants answers.

"This is an area that I'd like to know as a parliamentarian that the government has adequate rules in place and, if not, do they need new legislation or do they require regulation."

New Democrat MP Brian Masse called on Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Industry Minister Navdeep Bains and the CRTC to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

"The minister needs to really address this. The CRTC should by playing a leadership role."

Masse said the government should do an inventory of the cellphone system's performance in emergencies and share those results with Canadians "within a matter of weeks."

Industry minister responds

Bains' office said the department works with cellphone providers.

"Cellphones play an important part in our everyday lives, and become ever more critical in times of emergencies. Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) has an ongoing working relationship with the telecommunication service providers focused on business continuity, especially in emergency situations, when the department works with the impacted service providers to offer the requested support.

"We will continue to work with cellphone service providers to ensure the system is prepared in case of emergencies, including extreme weather events."   

Conservative critic Dan Albas wants the House of Commons industry committee to hold hearings on the reliability of Canada's cellphone services in emergencies. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Cellphone companies say their networks did work — albeit more slowly — in the aftermath of the tornadoes and they dispatched teams with portable generators to keep critical parts of their networks running.

The calls for the government to examine the reliability of Canada's cellular phone networks in an emergency come after six tornadoes touched down in the Ottawa-Gatineau area on Sept. 21. One tornado hit an electrical substation and high winds downed power lines, knocking out electricity to an estimated 170,000 customers.

As the electrical outage dragged into the following day, many Ottawa-area residents found their cellphone service had slowed to a crawl, with signal strength at only one bar or with no service at all.

Telus deployed mobile generators in the wake of the Ottawa tornadoes after cell tower backup batteries began to lose power. (Telus)

One Barrhaven woman reported being unable to phone 911 to alert police to a possible break-in taking place in her neighborhood.

The signal strength was so low that Ottawa city manager Steve Kanellakos ended up driving around Ottawa in his pyjamas, trying to find a strong enough cellphone signal to allow him to communicate with the city's emergency operations centre.

Most cellphone base stations run on municipal electrical grids, with backup batteries that kick in when the power goes out. Those batteries are only designed to last a few hours. That means cellphone providers have to scramble to deploy portable generators to keep service going in a prolonged blackout.

No minimum standard

There is no minimum standard set by the government for how long for cellphone networks should be able to keep working in the event of a prolonged power outage.

Albas said reporting by CBC News has shed light on a problem.

"It's raising awareness that there is a growing dependence on our electronic devices and how they may work — or not work — in a public safety emergency," he said.

"The government should always be looking for ways to improve the safety of Canadians, especially in relation to new and changing technology. It would be my hope that Minister Goodale and Minister Bains would already be reacting to these kinds of things, asking questions."

Masse said he also wants the government to look into the question, particularly since those who coordinate public safety responses in emergencies also rely, at least in part, on cellphone networks.

Masse said the government should compile an inventory of the existing system to determine its strengths and weaknesses in an emergency.

"The minister needs to convene a meeting with the CRTC to get a handle on what the different operators in Canada are capable of and what they are expected to do with those capabilities, where are the weaknesses and gaps, and to have a public discourse about that."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.


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